Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands – The Site of the First Nuclear Bomb Blast

The year was 1945.  The United States and the rest of the world had been at war for years, and the casualties were mounting.  After defeating Germany, all eyes turned to the Pacific theater.  America was making headway in the hopscotch war for tiny islands, and the top brass was beginning plans for an invasion of mainland Japan.  They codenamed it “Operation Downfall” and they knew the losses on both sides would be heavy.  It was planned to begin in October, and 500,000 purple heart medals were ordered in advance of the invasion.

The scientists of the Manhattan Project were on the clock.  Led by Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer, they were tasked with building an atomic bomb.  It looked like they had a workable design, but they needed to test it.  After looking at eight different sites, the government selected a spot in southern New Mexico near Alamogordo.  The government already controlled that area of desert, and the surrounding space was sparsely populated.  They called it the Trinity Site.

Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands
White Sands Missile Range – home of the Trinity Site

On July 16, 1945, they tested the first nuclear bomb and it brought the war to a swift end.  The enormous number of purple heart medals weren’t needed (and are still being used today).  The landscape of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan were forever changed.  It was truly a monumental event.

Today, The Trinity Site is a national landmark.  However, it is somewhat inconveniently located in White Sands Missile Range.  For obvious reasons, the government can’t open the area to the public year round.  But they do open it for 6 hours every year in what they call the Trinity Site Open House.

Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands
The Trinity Site field and obelisk

What to Expect at the Trinity Site Open House

We entered through the northern gate – Stallion.  We arrived near the opening time of 8:00 am.  We waited in line for about 15 minutes, handed our driver’s licenses to the military man at the gate (all of our licenses – not just the driver) and then entered.  We were not allowed to take photos once we entered White Sands until we reached the Trinity Site.

White Sands Missile Range Keep Out Sign
Fence lining the path to the Trinity Site

We drove along a paved road for about 20 minutes until we reached the site.  More military men directed us into parking spaces, and we exited the car.  We walked with the crowds of people on a fenced path to a fenced field.  In the middle of the field was a lava rock obelisk.

Also present was a mock-up of the Fat Man nuclear bomb, and the large canister nicknamed “Jumbo” which was originally supposed to contain the nuclear blast before scientists determined it would be useless to try.  Along the fence were historical photos about the test, the site, and the aftermath of the bombing.

Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands
Warning sign at Trinity Site

There is also the McDonald/Schmidt house on the property where the bomb was assembled.  It wasn’t open in 2014 when we were there and signs said it was “Temporarily Closed.”  (The house is accessible for six hours a year, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t be bothered to open it this year.  “Temporarily” is relative, I guess.)

Tip: Wear sunscreen and bring a hat. It is the desert! I definitely got a little burnt. Also, the wind was pretty crazy and I was glad I brought a hair tie.

Radioactive Trinitite

Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands
Radioactive trinitite – the green glassy substance created after the atomic bomb blast.

When the bomb exploded, the desert sand was heated to 14,710 degrees Fahrenheit and was scooped up into the large blast fireball. As the sand fused together it fell back to the earth as a rain of molten glass.  This was a brand new substance and scientists called it Trinitite.  At one time this green glassy substance covered much of the depression created by the blast.  But the newly formed Atomic Energy Site filled the depression and hauled away much of the Trinitite.

Radioactive trinitite held in the hand at the Trinity Site

There were pieces on hand to look at, touch, and play with.  Geiger counters click-click-clicked when they were swiped over them, and it was neat seeing something so rare.

Reflections Upon Leaving the Site

There isn’t much to do or see at the Trinity Site. There are is no entertainment. There aren’t interactive exhibits. But it is a place to reflect on history and a neat place to think about science.  As we left the site, we saw the line had gotten larger and there was a protest at the gate.

Was the nuclear bomb a technology the world could have done without or did it save enough lives we were justified using it?  Those answers wouldn’t be found in the New Mexican desert, but it was interesting to stand where this complex time in human history began.

Trinity Site Obelisk

Where is the Trinity Site

Website : Official Website of White Sands Missile Range

The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Most of you are familiar with my Cold War fascination, so a trip to Albuquerque would not have been complete without a trip to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque.

The museum is located outside of the Albuquerque Museum District near Old Town. For a brief stint after the 2001 terror attacks necessitated a move from the original site on Kirkland Air Force Base, the museum was relocated nearer to the city’s other museums, but the outdoor display area was inadequate to hold their aircraft exhibits.

For when you are finished with the indoor museum section, there is still quite a bit to see! The museum has four airplanes that reside in the Museum’s outdoor Heritage Park. These very rare iconic warbirds (B29 Superfortress, B52-B Stratofortress, F-105D Thunderchief and A7 Corsair II) would be an attraction by themselves for aviation enthusiasts.

Propaganda at Nuclear Museum in Albuquerque

At 5 and 7, a lot of the museum was over the children’s heads. There was a pretty nifty scavenger hunt that kept Claire entertained for a while, but mom was definitely more interested than the children. I would recommend the museum for kids 8 and up though.

However, regardless of their ages, be ready to explain some things to your children. There are some VERY powerful photos of the devastation in Japan after the nuclear bomb drops. While not disturbingly graphic, seeing a photo of a city before and then utter nothingness after is not something you can just gloss over and not patiently discuss.

Luke was not at all paying attention, but Claire and I had a beautiful teaching moment about the costs of war. We saw photos of generals and important Cold War decision-making figures and talked about how the common people were historically who would shoulder the brunt of the devastation of war.

Mockups of Nuclear Bombs in Albuquerque

We then doubled back to the replicas of Little Boy and Big Man and talked about how suffering on such a large scale could come from something so small. I was almost crying while answering her kindhearted and confused questions this museum bought to her mind. Heck, I’m almost crying writing about it now. But I was glad I could be there and hold her hand while we talked about it, instead of having her read the cold facts and statistics in a history book.

There is also a lot of discussion about the decision to drop the bombs, and voices that weighed in on both sides of the argument.

Einstein artwork at National Nuclear Museum in AlbuquerqueBut this museum isn’t all about history. It is definitely about the science behind it as well. The great scientists responsible for nuclear advancements are all present here and the faces of the Manhattan Project are detailed. There are also hands-on explanations of a lot of the science involved. Lest we forget the other applications of nuclear science, there are also exhibits about nuclear medicine and nuclear power.

Honestly, in all of the museums I’ve visited in North America, this might be the best.  It does an amazing job of packing in science and history at every turn and explaining otherwise difficult concepts to visitors.

Next time I am in Albuquerque, I plan to make a return trip to spend more time here.  The kids were a little under the weather and I was a little emotional after some of the material in the museum, and we left before I was ready.  In the future, I’d plan three to four hours for my visit here.  There is a lot to learn here if you take the time to listen…

Website : The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

The lessons of flight at National Nuclear Museum in Albuquerque

Disclosure – We were guests of Visit Albuquerque during our visit to this museum.  However, my Cold War obsession and other opinions are my own.

Southwestern Road Trip Update

In the last week I’ve put on a lot of miles and seen many amazing things. The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Four Corners, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, the Very Large Array, and the dunes of white sand desert. I’ve also been polishing off audiobooks and podcasts during the hours I’ve had to sit behind the wheel.

The trip has been satisfying but I’m getting really tired. I wake up, answer some email, get a photo ready for the day, drive several hours, take photos and find a room for the night tired from sitting all day. The thing with driving all day long is that you don’t get much exercise and most of the food options along highways aren’t very good.

Tonight I’m in Carlsbad, New Mexico where I got my oil changed and will take off tomorrow for Carlsbad Caverns. The town seems pretty empty this time of year. The motels are advertising walk-in specials and there are few cars in the parking lots.

From here I have a long drive to Dallas where I’ll be able to work for several days before heading to Florida on November 5. I have thousands of photos and stories to work on during December before I take off again and leave the US in January.

If you are in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area and would like to meet sometime next week let me know. I’ll probably be doing a formal meet up with my friend Scott Kurtz sometime next week in the Dallas area. More details to follow.