The first explosion of an atomic bomb took place on July 16, 1945 at Trinity Site in New Mexico. The Trinity Site is now part of White Sands Missile Range. (Information checked at http://www.wsmr.army.mil/PAO/Trinity/Pages/default.aspx.)
In 2014, I spent several weeks in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico and the surrounding area. At the suggestion of a friend, I timed my travels so I could visit nearby Trinity Site on the one day it was open to the public that year.
(In 2015, Trinity Site is once again open to the public twice during the year, today and again on Saturday, October 3rd.)
Trinity Site is remote, which is for the best. It wouldn’t have been a good idea to test an atomic bomb near an urban center. (When the first atomic bomb was tested, scientists just didn’t know what was going to happen.) And since the U.S. Army owns so much of the land in the area for the White Sands Missile Range, no town has been able to spring up nearby. The entrance to Trinity Site (Stallion Gate entrance) is 12 miles east of the small town (actually an unincorporated community) of San Antonio, NM and 53 miles west of Carrizozo, NM (population 996, as of 2010). From the Stallion Gate entrance, it’s about five miles to the security checkpoint. It’s another 17 miles from the security checkpoint to the parking area at Trinity Site.
There wasn’t much checking at the security checkpoint. I was required to show my driver’s license, but it wasn’t compared to any database. The security guy who asked for it just gave it a cursory glance. He did ask me if I had any weapons in the van, and I ‘fessed up that I had a pocket knife in here somewhere. The security guy joked that in New Mexico, a pocket knife is just a toothpick. I’d read somewhere that I’d be asked to show the van’s registration, but I wasn’t. Nor was I asked to open any of the doors to the van so security personnel could have a look at what I was transporting. My van was searched more thoroughly (back doors opened and guards taking a peek inside) at the Hoover Dam and the Los Angeles International Airport.
(Read about the search of my van at the Hoover Dam.)
The seventeen mile drive to Trinity Site was mostly empty save for scrubby little bushes, and antelope crossing signs. (I did not actually see any antelope, crossing or otherwise.) Visitors were told not to stray from the designated path and that if our vehicle broke down to pull to the side of the road and stay there until help arrived.
The parking lot at the Trinity Site was huge and filled mostly with shiny cars. I didn’t see any other rusty conversion vans from the late 80s there.
After parking, I walked toward the entrance to what is referred to as “Ground Zero,” the area where the bomb was detonated. Near the entrance was a row of portable toilets, vendors selling food (hamburgers, hot dogs, soda), free drinking water, and several tables from which workers from the National Parks Service were selling items, most of which were unrelated to Trinity Site or atomic bombs.
Ground Zero was surrounded by chain link fence.
The walk from the parking lot to Ground Zero is about a quarter of a mile.
Once inside the Ground Zero area, I was very surprised by the festive attitude of most of the visitors. People were laughing and talking and joking as if they didn’t realize they were in the spot where humans made it possible to wipe out not only their own species, but most every other species on the planet. I was hoping for quiet reflection, but I felt more as if I were in the midst of a picnic. There were dogs on leashes, kids running around in circles, and people taking photos of each other in front of anything that didn’t move. People were waiting their turn to pose for photos in front of the Fatman bomb casing on display and the Ground Zero monument.There was a display of photos from pre-bomb work at the site, and people were taking photos of those photos. It was a strange atmosphere.
I was very interested in what sort of spin the U.S. Government (in the guise of the U.S. Army) would put on the detonation of the first atomic bomb. Would the decision be defended? Would the government be a cheerleader for the bomb? Would there be some sort of apology? I found that the spin was no spin at all. There was no sort of commentary on the bomb, nothing positive or negative stated about it. Instead, the presentation was very much Just the Facts, Ma’am. Visitors were told what happened and left to draw their own conclusions.
I did get to see trinitite, although removing it was prohibited.
According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinitite
Trinitite, also known as atomsite or Alamogordo glass, is the glassy residue left on the desert floor after the plutonium-based Trinity nuclear bomb test on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The glass is primarily composed of arkosic sand composed of quartz grains and feldspar (both microcline and smaller amount of plagioclase with small amount of calcite, hornblende and augite in a matrix of sandy clay) that was melted by the atomic blast. It is usually a light green, although color can vary. It is mildly radioactive but safe to handle.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, samples were gathered and sold to mineral collectors as a novelty. Traces of the material may be found at the Trinity Site today, although most of it was bulldozed and buried by the United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1953. It is now illegal to take the remaining material from the site; however, material that was taken prior to this prohibition is still in the hands of collectors.
I did not try to take any trinitite with me. Having a sample is not worth the possible trouble.
I am glad that I took my friend’s advice and visited Trinity Site. I don’t know what to say about my visit that isn’t either trite or a gross understatement. The detonation of the first atomic bomb was an intense and momentous event, both for humanity and the entire planet. To pretend otherwise is obscene.
To learn more about Trinity Site and the detonation of the first atomic bomb, there are plenty of websites you can look at. I also recommend the 1980 documentary The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.