I Trekked To A Nuclear Crater To See Where The Atomic Age First Began
I am standing at the gateway to Armageddon, and I’m locked out. “This key doesn’t fit,” my guide says, jiggling a standard-issue padlock, as if that might help. “They must have changed the lock.” We look at each other with “Well, now what?” expressions. We have just spent a half hour in a pickup truck,…
I am standing at the gateway to Armageddon, and I’m locked out.
“This key doesn’t fit,” my guide says, jiggling a standard-issue padlock, as if that might help. “They must have changed the lock.”
We look at each other with “Well, now what?” expressions. We have just spent a half hour in a pickup truck, bumping 17 miles across a scrub-strewn landscape from the north gate of New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range. Now we are staring at a chain-link fence that curves away from us in both directions, creating a mile-long circle around one of the most significant sites in human history: ground zero of the first atomic bomb blast.
It’s hot here in the treeless, open-air oven the Spanish conquistadors called Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man), but not as hot as it got 75 years ago. At precisely 5: 30 a.m. on July 16, 1945, a fireball half-again as hot as the surface of the sun scorched the earth of this basin and ushered in the atomic age.
Now I’m worried that I’ve come all this way in vain. But Drew Hamilton, who’s been a White Sands public affairs liaison for 10 years, has a plan.
“They have a spare key at the fire department,” he says. “We can borrow it.”
“Great!” I say. “Where’s the fire department?”
“Back at the gate!” he replies merrily.
My enthusiasm is deflating, but I decide to channel Hamilton’s gung-ho attitude. We climb back into the white pickup and jostle our way back.
I watch the barren landscape slide past. The milkweed and agave are a rushing blur against the blue Sacramento mountains in the distance. I’ve come a long way to get here, but that first atomic bomb had an even more circuitous journey.
In the early 1940s, U.S. intelligence harbored a terrifying secret: Germany was feverishly trying to develop a nuclear bomb.
In the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt—spurred by an alarming letter from Albert Einstein—authorized an all-out nuclear program. In charge of building the nationwide network of top-secret infrastructure was the Army’s General Leslie R. Groves, an engineer who’d just overseen construction of the Pentagon. Groves hand-picked theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to head the scientific team. The actual testing of the device was to be led by Harvard physicist Kenneth Bainbridge. (Here’s how Einstein’s work on a refrigerator led to the letter to Roosevelt.)
From Washington State to Tennessee, some 130,000 Americans were employed in the effort, virtually none of them with any knowledge of what they were working on. The nerve center of the massive project was the sleepy town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, atop the Pajarito Plateau. There, the quaint buildings of a boys’ school—attended by Oppenheimer as a child—were converted into a campus where scientists and engineers theorized, designed, and built the components of the device that became known as the “Gadget.”
And a hundred miles to the south, in the remote desert south of Albuquerque, a bare-bones facility was built for the final assembly and testing of their combined efforts. The project was called Manhattan. The first blast was called Trinity.
Why Trinity? Oppenheimer, a bookish sort of guy, came up with the name, but his explanation was vague, says Jim Eckles, now retired after 30 years as a White Sands public information official but still its go-to guy for all things Trinity.
“He said he wasn’t sure,” says Eckles, “but he knew he’d been reading some poetry by John Donne at the time, and one line stuck with him: ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God.’ From that he somehow moved on to Trinity.”
Eckles and I are chatting in the front room of his home in Las Cruces, a town that’s pressed along the southwestern end of White Sands. He’s something of a legend at the range, and he still volunteers to answer questions during the two days a year that the Trinity site is open to the public—the first Saturdays in April and October.
“The White Sands location wasn’t the automatic choice for Trinity,” Eckles says. “Several other places were considered: Colorado, the barrier islands off south Texas, and even one of the Channel Islands off southern California. But in the end, White Sands was in the middle of nowhere, it was relatively close to Los Alamos, and there was already a government bombing and gunnery range here.”
The Trinity test originally had been scheduled for July 4, but that was pushed back as the experts tinkered on the Gadget.
The mechanics of creating the biggest explosion since Krakatoa erupted were at once both mind-numbingly complex and stupefyingly simple. Basically, the heart of the globe-like, five-foot-wide Gadget was a 13-pound, softball-size sphere of plutonium, a highly radioactive and relatively unstable element created from uranium in a nuclear reactor. That softball needed to be compressed to the size of a golf ball, at which point the sphere would attain critical mass and erupt in an uncontrolled, cataclysmic explosion.
How do you make a plutonium softball into a nuclear golf ball? You place it at the center of a larger sphere, surround it with 5,000 pounds of high explosives—32 separate bombs—and blow them up at the very same millisecond. The pressure of the blast coming from all sides will crush the plutonium like a super-dense, radioactive meatball. There were no digital switches in those days, so all the little bombs had to be wired to a single control, located in a bunker 5.5 miles to the south. And every wire had to be exactly the same length.
In concrete bunkers as close as 800 yards from ground zero, scientists hooked up oscilloscopes, radiation detectors, and lots and lots of cameras, including Mitchell 35mm movie cameras—the same type that six years earlier had filmed Gone With The Wind—and Fastax cameras, snapping away at 10,000 frames a second.
July is the rainy season in New Mexico, but long-range forecasts indicated the 16th would be relatively free of precipitation. The date was set. On July 12, a Packard sedan left Los Alamos, winding along mountain roads and across empty expanses on the way to ground zero. In the back seat, packed into a small box perforated with what looked like breathing holes for a pet, were the two halves of the Gadget’s plutonium core.
The next day, Friday the 13th, a truck left Los Alamos carrying the five-foot-wide sphere to White Sands. Zero hour was less than three days away.
“Let’s stop someplace before we go get that key,” says Drew Hamilton. We follow a dusty road toward a small, dark house about two miles from ground zero.
We pull up to the Schmidt homestead, built by a rancher in 1922 and commandeered by the Army in 1944. There is a photo of a sergeant named Herb Lehr walking through the front door, carrying the bomb’s plutonium core with all the nonchalance of a kid toting his lunch box. In that room, the world’s first atomic explosive device was assembled.
We don’t have a key to get into the ranch house, so I go from window to window, cupping my hands on the glass to get a look. Seventy-five years ago, through plastic sheets nailed to the windows to keep the desert dust out, I would have seen a team of three scientists gingerly assembling the elements of the core.
On Saturday the core was inserted into the Gadget. A heavy-duty hoist lifted the assembly to the top of a 100-foot steel tower, fabricated by a Pittsburgh company and assembled by Army engineers.
Next came the final preparations; wires attached, circuits double-checked. Most of the telemetry equipment and ignition circuits had already gone through a dress rehearsal in May, when the staff blew up 100 tons of TNT just a few hundred yards from ground zero. Nobody there had ever seen, heard, or felt an explosion of such violent power.