New Mexico is the birthplace of the Atomic age. FTF opens its TOP SECRET folder and tells you the best sites to visit on your next trip to New Mexico.
The backbone of New Mexico’s economy is defense and weaponry. Rumors abound of buried arsenals in mountains around the state, bunkers filled with decaying tactical warheads oozing toxic sludge into the water table, and the potential of nuclear contamination in case of a WIPP shipment mishap. But those are only rumors.
In truth, the first atomic bomb was developed in Los Alamos, fueled by uranium from Grants, assembled in Alamogordo and detonated with technology invented in Albuquerque at Kirtland Air Force base. The Nuclear Age is pretty much a New Mexico export. New Mexico also has the only elementary school in the U.S. built underground as a bomb shelter–Abo Elementary in Artesia.
To fully appreciate the state’s connections to atomic energy and its impact on this century, you can take the whole family on a tour of New Mexico’s most “nuclear” sites, starting in Albuquerque.
The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (505/245-2137)
This museum, located in its new facility north of the Kirtland Air Force Base (just off the Coronado Freeway), offers visitors a chance to view artifacts like bombs, bombers, and the gear needed to get them to where they are going. Not only will you find (replicas of) Little Boy (the bomb dropped on Nagasaki) and Fat Man (the bomb dropped on Hiroshima)–you’ll also find constantly changing exhibits that chronicle the lives of movers and shakers of the Atomic Age. In addition to the bombs, you’ll also find fission weapons, tactical and strategic thermonuclear bombs, fleet ballistic missiles, antisubmarine missles, warheads and artillery rounds. Outside the hangar display area are a B-52 and F-105, Polaris and Minuteman missiles and a 280-mm. atomic cannon. In the theater, you can watch “Superfortress B-29”, a close-up look at the bombers like the Enola Gay or a historical overview of the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb, “Ten Seconds That Shook the World” (50-minute documentary usually shown four times a day). Museum admission is $8 adults and $7 kids for kids older than 5. Kids younger than 5 are free. The Museum is open daily 9am to 5pm (closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas).
Entrance to the base requires proof of insurance, valid driver’s license and various forms to fill out. There are shuttles if your car can’t qualify for base entrance. There is also a SunTran bus that runs to the museum, which you can catch on Route 2 at Eubank and Central. The museum is 1 mile south of the Wyoming Gate.
The Trinity Test Site
On the morning of July 16, 1945, the world shook from the first Trinity Site atomic bomb test blast in the Tularosa Basin north of Alamogordo, supervised by the scientists from Los Alamos labs who weren’t quite sure if the atmosphere would catch fire or not, and that would be the end of THAT! The bomb flash could be seen as far away as Gallup, Los Alamos and Las Cruces. The Trinity Site, now on the White Sands Missile Range, offers tours at the beginning of every April and October. The government says it’s safe, even though the radiation levels are 10 times higher than your home or mine. For information you can contact the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History or the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce (575/437-6120).
Bradbury Science Museum
To take care of your science project needs for the next century or so, visit the Bradbury Science Museum, on the main drag in Los Alamos at 15th and Central. At this fun museum you will find a 20-minute film that orients the visitor to the Pajarito Plateau and tells about the origins and ends of the Manhattan Project. Throughout the museum are displays on nuclear weaponry, disarmament and its consequences, nuclear energy (especially on its safety) and lots more you probably didn’t learn about in school.
There are hands-on exhibits about lasers, computers, geothermal technologies, solar energy as well as alternate uses of nuclear knowledge. There are plenty of exhibits for all ages, with fascinating details about the nuclear age.
There is a gift shop next door with everything from glow- in-the-dark periodic tables on t-shirts to videos and video biographies of the folks involved in the Manhattan Project, and one of the best book selections you’ll find for many miles. The museum is free, open 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Saturday and 1 to 5pm on Sunday and Monday. Call 505/667-4444.
Nuclear Storage Site
To complete your Nuclear New Mexico tour, you’ll surely enjoy a visit to the WIPP site to learn about the underground storage of nuclear waste, with an emphasis on how safe it will be, buried beneath the salt flats south of Carlsbad for all eternity. Tours are no longer offered of the actual WIPP site, but an informative video and some displays are set up and guided tours are offered at The Skeen-Whitlock Building, (WIPP Information Center) 4021 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad. The center is open 8:30am to 3:30pm Monday to Thursday. For more information call 800/336-9477.
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