In the Footsteps (Part 5)

Earlier this summer, we traveled to New Mexico to walk in the footsteps of those men and women who developed the world’s first nuclear weapons. We return this week to that series about the landscape and museums of New Mexico.

To read Part 1 (Photos of New Mexico’s Nuclear Past), click HERE.

To read Part 2 (Lamy, New Mexico), click HERE.

To read Part 3 (Bandelier National Monument & Los Alamos Historical Society Museum), click HERE.

To read Part 4 (Los Alamos & the Bradbury Science Museum), click HERE.

After several days of making our way through America’s atomic past in the birthplace of the atom bomb, we decamped Los Alamos, La Fonda, and Santa Fe to head south for Albuquerque. Our destination was the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH). Located on the southeastern edge of the city, just a stone’s throw away from Kirtland Air Force Base and the Sandia Foothills, the museum, which was formerly known as the much-easier-to-say (and type) National Atomic Museum, states as its mission to serve “as America’s resource for nuclear history and science.”

The NMNSH is a Smithsonian Institution affiliate, as is the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas (for our post on that, click HERE), and it exudes the granite cool competence that one expects from the Smithsonian. This incarnation of the museum opened its doors in the fall of 2009, and it averages about 70,000 visitors a year. The NMNSH has eleven exhibit areas, and though we walked through each of them, we were naturally drawn to some more than others.

(Photo, Los Alamos National Laboratory)

The first exhibit we visited is entitled “The Decision to Drop.” It contains a wide array of artifacts from the era of the Manhattan Project. The first piece of history that grabbed our attention was a calutron, a device used in the uranium separation process. These devices function by taking advantage of the slight difference in the atomic mass of U-235 and U-238. Inside the calutron, electromagnets bend a passing ionized beam of uranium. Each uranium isotope is deflected to a different degree and can then be collected at different points.

The calutron at the NMNSH is an original one, used during WWII at Oak Ridge plant Y-12. Calutrons and Y-12 are notable for some of the more interesting stories of the entire project. During the war, shortages of copper were acute. Given that the calutrons were, at their cores, electromagnets—iron bars wrapped by copper wire—this was an enormous problem. The solution: silver. Electrically similar to copper, silver also had another advantage: if you knew where to shop, it was available in abundance. When you had the kind of clout that General Leslie Grove and the Manhattan Project enjoyed, you could shop at the U.S. Treasury. And they did. In August 1942, Groves’s aide-de-camp began negotiations with the U.S. Treasury to take delivery of 6000 tons of silver. Eventually the Manhattan Project and the Y-12 calutrons would consume 14,700 tons of silver. That’s 428,749,990 troy ounces, or $17,188,587,099 in today’s dollars.

Adapted Packard VIP Limo

Perhaps the most remarkable artifact in the Decision to Drop exhibit, the one that attracts visitors’ rapt attention and about which docents like to talk, is the 1941 Packard limousine used to convey V.I.P.s from the train station in Lamy to and around Los Alamos. After its manufacture, the limo was modified by a coachworks maker to enable it to carry upwards of fifteen passengers at a time. But just a few years ago, this automobile was a castoff hulk sitting in a nearby junkyard. Now, the dramatic curves of the limo’s hood and fenders and its preposterously long, stretched slab sides are showroom-floor-new and painted in an era-appropriate olive drab. This car, almost lost as trash, matches the photographs of yesteryear.

Nearby the limo sits another car, a 1942 Plymouth. Though this car wasn’t actually a part of the Manhattan Project, it is correct for the time period, and it is arranged in a dramatic scene meant to reenact another famous moment in the history of the Manhattan Project: the arrival of the plutonium core at the Trinity site. Sitting the car’s back seat is a facsimile of the box that carried the plutonium from Los Alamos to McDonald’s farmhouse and, ultimately, to the Gadget, the lab-bench experiment that became the world’s first atomic bomb.

Fat Man and Little Boy Casings

Other pieces from Trinity, including a seismograph used at the test site, and a Fat Man-style bomb case that was manufactured at the lab in the summer of 1945, sit nearby the car. Each one adds its own sentence or punctuation mark to the story of the Manhattan Project.

We’ve spent a fair bit of time in the Los Alamos and Santa Fe area over the past few years, and we’ve read a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction and a couple that are probably somewhere in between. At this point, it was easy for the two of us to stare at the tiny warning plate on the limo’s dash—Do Not Exceed 20 MPH—and to imagine the restless, wrung-out Oppenheimer and handful of his trusted confidantes, perhaps Norris Bradbury, maybe George Kistiakowsky, making their way the 200 miles from Los Alamos to Trinity, anxious to see what would happen, hoping it would work, worrying it would be a dud, and perhaps even fearing it would work.

We’ll cover the rest of the NMNSH in a second post next week. Keep reading because there’s more to these artifacts.

2 thoughts on “In the Footsteps (Part 5)

  1. Interesting!! Quite the transition from Shuttle to atomic bomb…! Makes me want to add this to our destination wish list, thanks! Have you read “Inventing Los Alamos: the Growth of an Atomic Community” by Jon Hunner? Curious what you think of it.

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