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Destroyer of Worlds

With a blinding flash, the nuclear age began in the new mexico desert. Twice a year, you can visit the site.

It was a morning, say those who witnessed it, when “the sun rose twice.”

On July 16, 1945, just before dawn in the high plains desert of central New Mexico, the  sky instantly lit up as an explosion the force of which  the earth had never seen ripped through the cool morning air. In a nanosecond, a 100-foot-tall metal tower vaporized. Sand melted. Shock waves pounded the mountains and were felt 100 miles away. According to one observer, “The heat was like opening an oven door, even at 10 miles.”And the world forever changed, as the first atomic weapon was successfully detonated.

In the official report on the test,  Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, who witnessed the blast, wrote, “The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined.”

The 20-kiloton explosion was the culmination of the famous Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to build an atomic weapon led by the brilliant physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. The  plutonium bomb that vaporized jackrabbits, cacti, and the metal tower in New Mexico was a proof-of-concept prototype for Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, less than a month later, taking more than 40,000 lives and ending World War II. Thus began a new and surreal period of human history—an era when we suddenly and frighteningly  were capable of destroying ourselves.

THE ORIGINAL GROUND ZERO

The world-rattling explosion happened on the White Sands Missile Range, a government facility about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico. The site where the blast occurred, code-named Trinity, is open to the public just twice a year: on the first Saturday of April and of October. If you’re a history fan or interested in world-shaping events,  it’s a must-see.

When approaching the barren, windswept site, you may expect to see a giant blast crater. If so, you’ll be disappointed. In 1952, the Army bulldozed the crater, which was only a few feet deep, and scooped up the desert sand that had been melted  into a greenish, mildly radioactive glass—called trinitite—by the heat of the explosion. (It’s illegal to take the few remaining pieces of trinitite that are scattered around, although nearby souvenir stands sell thumbnail-sized pieces, gathered years ago, for a few dollars each.)

Trinity Test SiteTrinity Test Site

Instead, you’ll find the Trinity monument, a black rock obelisk around 12 feet high, which marks the explosion’s hypocenter. Small pieces of the footing of the tower poke up from their concrete mooring, and pictures of the blast are attached to an encircling fence. Near the entrance to the hypocenter is Jumbo, a huge steel  container originally designed to contain the explosives but eventually not used in  the blast. Three manned observation bunkers, located about 10,000 yards from  ground zero, have been removed, but one of the old instrumentation bunkers is  visible beside the road just west of ground zero.

The plutonium bomb was designed about 200 miles north of Trinity, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory—typically open for tours on the same weekends, for the ambitious “atomic tourist.” The weapon’s complicated and untested firing  mechanism and design made project scientists wary. Most felt a full test of the concept was needed before they could be confident the bomb would perform correctly under combat conditions. They chose a lonely site in the desert that the Spanish settlers called Jornada del Muerto (“Route of the Dead Man”).

In the months leading up to the test, scientists gathered at the Schmidt-McDonald Ranch House, a one-story adobe building appropriated from a rancher in 1942. (A  quick two-mile bus trip from ground zero takes visitors today to the restored farm.) The plutonium core components arrived there in the back of a Plymouth sedan on July 12 and “the Gadget” was dutifully assembled in the master bedroom. Jeeps were outside with their engines running for a quick getaway if needed. On July 14, the high-explosive sphere—which was about five feet in diameter and, when  activated with the plutonium, was warm to the touch—was lashed to the bed of an Army truck and driven very gingerly to the tower, where it was winched up to the top and armed with detonators to await firing.

Just after the blast, as the mushroom cloud rose more than seven miles into the sky, Oppenheimer recalled a quote from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The Nuclear Age had begun, opening doors that can never be closed.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01 June 2011 21:13

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