The Southwestern state was central to the development of nuclear weapons. When the testing ground for the first detonation recently reopened for visitors, a writer decided to confront that difficult history.
By Nina Burleigh
- Published Nov. 4, 2022Updated Nov. 8, 2022, 12:49 p.m. ET
They say the sun rose twice over a corner of southern New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The first sunrise was produced by the detonation of a new weapon its makers had nicknamed “the gadget.” The actual sun rose 10 minutes later, dawning on a new era in human history.
The world’s first atomic bomb exploded that morning, launching the nuclear age, and foreshadowing the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki within the month.
The detonation site itself is known as Trinity Site, and it lies within the White Sands Missile Range, a 3,200-square-mile area of forbidden high desert, on a plateau of creosote and sand deep between two knife-sharp mountain ranges. The test site has traditionally been open to visitors two days a year, in spring and fall, but the pandemic put a temporary halt to any visits.
This fall, the United States Army announced that it would resume public visits, with the first open house scheduled for the second weekend of October. Against the geopolitical backdrop of the war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s nuclear rhetoric, there’s no time like the present to think about our nuclear history, and I decided to make Trinity Site my first stop on an atomic tour of the state. The bomb project’s lead scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, named it Trinity after a John Donne poem about humanity, faith and submission to God.
The New Mexico landscape is eerily apropos to an atomic tour. Relics of primordial geological violence are everywhere: plunging rifts and canyons, volcanic calderas, ancient lava flow and a vast, surreal, white desert, almost lunar. Before 8 a.m. in the morning, a line of cars already snaked down the one-lane blacktop to the White Sands gate, where soldiers in Day-Glo yellow vests checked driver’s licenses for names on the foreign terrorist list.
A Sunday-market vibe prevailed. Under a cobalt October sky, picnic tables, dogs on leashes, gamboling children. Volunteers grilled hot dogs and brats, and sold chips, candy, soda and water under a tent. Mushroom cloud T-shirts and other atomic swag could be had at another. Everyone ambled toward the precise spot where the gadget, a plutonium core surrounded by TNT, was detonated on a high platform.
All that’s left of the 100-foot tower that evaporated that morning is a 2-inch stub of concrete, but a 12-foot obelisk with a plaque commemorates the date and detonation site. There the crowd coagulated, like at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, awaiting selfie turns.
Between selfies and noshing on brats and chips, visitors rock-hunted, peering down at the sand between tufts of hardy grass for bits of the sage-green substance called trinitite. Trinitite was formed when sand, sucked up and liquefied by the blast, fell back to earth. It is against federal law to take it home, but bits are for sale at a nearby rock shop, for $30 to $60 a gram.
One Army engineer, Roger Rasmussen, speaking to the Voices of the Manhattan Project, remembered the light coming through his closed eyelids. “We stood up and looked into this black abyss ahead of us. There was this beautiful color of the bomb, gorgeous. The colors were roving in and out of our visual range of course. The neutrons and gamma rays and all that went by with the first flash while we were down. There we stood, gawking at this.”
Radioactive fallout plumed over the area but the public was never warned, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication founded in 1945 by nuclear physicists concerned about the dangers of atomic weapons. The army publicly blamed windows blown out for 120 miles around on a munitions depot accident. Health data was never collected and descendants of some of the nearby rural inhabitants are still seeking compensation for what they say are generations of cancer.
New Mexico’s atomic tour continues farther north. At Santa Fe, the state capital, tourists visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, browse art galleries selling native and modern American art, and shop for silver and turquoise jewelry, but are often oblivious to the city’s history as a setting in a critical game of nuclear espionage with the Russians. The former C.I.A. officer Bruce Held has written “A Spy’s Guide to Santa Fe and Albuquerque,” identifying the sites around town (including a bridge and the landmark Spitz Clock near the main plaza) where American spies for the K.G.B., using code names like Star and Bumblebee, dead-dropped papers and notes in invisible ink, or handed them off at clandestine meetings.
If You Go
Trinity Site visits are free to the public, but identification is required. The next Trinity Site open houses are April 1 and Oct. 21, 2023.
White Sands National Park costs $25 for a weekly entry pass; open daily except Christmas, and hours vary throughout the year.
Three Rivers Petroglyph site charges a $3 parking fee and is open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. April to October, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. October to April. Non-campers must be out by 10 p.m. year-round. Check website for trail updates.
The outdoor White Sands Range Missile Museum exhibits are free, but identification is required for entry. Consult the website for news about the opening of the indoor museum in December.
Manhattan Project Historical Park has its visitors center and tour exhibits in Los Alamos. The public does not need to register for Trinity Site, but they do for some areas of the Manhattan Project sites. Check website for tours and registration requirements.