Don’t forget to duck and cover!
America has long had an ambivalent fascination with the atomic bomb. The history of the bomb, the nuclear testing that made it a frightening reality, and the place of the A-bomb in popular culture, are all shown to great effect at the Atomic Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It’s fitting that a museum telling the story of America’s atomic age is located in Nevada, just miles from the desert where hundreds of the fearsome weapons were assessed.
The Atomic Museum tells the story in videos, images, text, test simulations, and with artifacts. These range from a real (unarmed) nuclear bomb to a room full of mannequins dressed in J.C. Penney outfits, ready to be blown to pieces in a test.
The Atomic Age began when the Manhattan Project reached its climax with the Trinity explosion in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The Atomic Museum explains the science behind the 21-kiloton plutonium implosion device. It also has haunting photographs of young scientists and soldiers scrawling their names on the bomb.
Manhattan Project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer watched the massive blast and quoted the Bhagavad-Gita; “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. A Christopher Nolan film about Oppenheimer open this July.
The Atomic Age became terribly real on August 6, 1945, when an atomic bomb called “Little Boy” dropped by a US B-29 exploded above Hiroshima, Japan. The Japanese did not surrender, despite the bomb and a Soviet invasion. The United States dropped a second bomb, “Fat Man,” on Nagasaki. August 9th. Estimates for fatalities from the bombs vary, from d a “low” of 110,000 mortalities to a “high” of 210,000 deaths..
An atomic bomb like Fat Man (a real, deactivated bomb, not a replica) is on display at The Atomic Museum. I stood behind a young Asian girl as we watched a video of a B-29 ‘delivering’ the bomb to Nagasaki, a sobering experience
The rest of the museum has “atomic age” relics, from bombs and rockets to drill bits used for underground explosions to Native American artifacts from the original inhabitants of the desert. There are also thousands of photographs and videos. Then there are atomic-themed toys, films, comics, music and games. One is the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory, a chemistry set from the early 1950’s, later criticized for including radioactive materials.
Nevada played a major role in the U.S. development and testing of nuclear weapons. President Harry Truman designated a 680-square mile area of the Nellis Air Force Gunnery and Bombing Range as the Nevada Proving Grounds (later e NTS, or Nuclear Test Site,) on December 18, 1950.
The first nuclear test took place a month later, on January 27, 1951, with the detonation of Shot Able, a 1-kiloton bomb, Between 1951 and 1992, the U.S. government conducted a staggering 1,021 nuclear tests at the Nevada test site. Nuclear rocket and ramjet engines were also tested there from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.
America’s adversaries attempted to spy on the ongoing tests. The Atomic Museum is launching a special exhibit on February 14, “SPY” in partnership with the National Security Agency’s (NSA) National Cryptologic Museum, examine covert intelligence gathering from the Cold War.
Museum guests can see the electronic tools used by American intelligence to monitor Soviet activities. “SPY” spotlights the NSA’s gathering of telemetry intelligence to obtain data on the internal functioning of missiles and space vehicles being tested by foreign government.
The Atomic Museum will also showcase the Enigma Machine, a cipher device used by the German military command to encode strategic messages during World War II. The machine, whose code was cracked by British mathematician Alan Turning, is on special loan by the National Cryptologic Museum
Some 100 of the nuclear bomb tests at NTS were atmospheric, while 921 were underground. The Atomic Museum has models, Geiger counters, derricks and other equipment from the tests, which began in 1951 and continued through 1992.
The move to underground testing began with increasing awareness of the impact of nuclear fallout, which could spread hundreds of miles from an atmospheric atomic test. In August 1963, the Limited Test Ban treaty which forbade testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, in space, and underwater was signed by the U.S., the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. (The Museum has U.S. and Soviet flags from a joint nuclear monitoring mission in 1989.)
The atmospheric tests were actually a tourist attraction for Las Vega. From the early 1950’s until the last atmospheric nuclear test in 1962, everyone from US Army troops in trenches to politicians and celebrities on VIP seating watched the blasts.
One of the most compelling exhibits at the Atomic Museum is “Ground Zero Theater.” Guests are ushed into a dark windowless concrete room uncomfortably suggestive of a fallout shelter. The red warning lights go out and an enormous explosion fills the video screen. Seconds later, the whole room shakes with the simulation of an atmospheric nuclear test.
The test site was 65 miles from Las Vegas, but the mushroom clouds from the atmospheric tests could be seen up to 100 miles away. Naturally, Las Vegas capitalized on this phenomenon.
Many guests could see clouds, or bursts of light from hotel windows. Casinos also hosted “dawn parties” and created atomic themed cocktails, encouraging visitors to view the tests. Calendars throughout the city advertised detonation times and the best viewing spots to see flashes, lights or mushroom clouds. Some institutions from the time, like Atomic Liquors (featured in The Hangover) are still in operation.
In 1957, Miss Atomic Bomb was crowned. Although there wasn’t a formal beauty pageant, Lee Merlin, a showgirl at the Sands casino, posed for an iconic photo with a cotton mushroom cloud pinned to her swimsuit.
Today, there is something of an “atomic tourism” boom. People come from around the world to visit the Atomic Museum and other museums on the ‘atomic trail,’ like Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Alamogordo, New Mexico.
The Atomic Museum, an Affiliate Partner of the Smithsonian, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. General Admission: $24, Seniors (62+) students, and Nevada residents $20.