The Cold War: Trinity & Apollo

On this date in 1945, the United States exploded the first nuclear weapon. A test to see whether the concept worked. It did.

Trinity Test (LANL)

Two years ago to commemorate this anniversary, only a couple of weeks after we started blogging together as Lofty Ambitions, we posted “A Day with Two Suns.” That’s a relatively brief post that we hope you’ll read along with this one. That post hinges on a statement in a physics textbook from 1942 that presages the eventual use of an atomic bomb and implies the inevitability of nuclear weapons, once radioactivity and isotopes of uranium and plutonium were discovered and studied by scientists.

Groves and Oppenheimer, September 11, 1945 (LANL)

“The Gadget” was perched at the top of a hundred-foot tower and exploded on July 16, 1945. It had a twenty-kiloton yield. A device of the same design was detonated over Nagasaki a few weeks later, killing 40,000 people instantly. The exact detonation site for the Trinity test in New Mexico is now marked with an obelisk and is open to visitors two days every year.

On this anniversary of the beginning of the nuclear age, we invite you to look at another link as well, not ours, but an artist’s rendering in video of the nuclear age through 1998. Click HERE for Isao Hasimoto’s powerful representation of the world’s nuclear detonations, beginning with the Trinity test. In the top banner, note the detonation count by country along with the months and years elapsing. Since 1998 and the timeframe Hashimoto represents, North Korea has tested two nuclear weapons. That brings the total to 2055 nuclear explosions.

Tomorrow, too, marks another anniversary, that of the last above-ground nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site (now called the Nevada National Security Site and worth the click for the security notice). In 1962, Little Feller I was a comparatively small weapon shot from a Davy Crockett launcher. All nuclear tests thereafter moved underground to prevent fallout sprinkling radioactive particles around the globe and to protect the atmosphere and those of us who would breathe it for decades to come. Plutonium occurs almost nowhere in the natural world, but in the nuclear era, we swim in a thin stream of the man-made element as a byproduct of atmospheric testing in addition to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Plutonium-239, the isotope used for nuclear weapons, has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. You may also want to take a few minutes to read “Fission & Half-Lives.”

With the nuclear age, of course, came the Cold War, our decades of standoff with the Soviet Union. Part of the story of the Cold War is the story of the space race. The Soviets won the race to space, putting the first man into space, then the first man into low-Earth orbit. The United States won the race to the Moon. That victory began on this date in 1969, when Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Center, with throngs of viewers crowded in the J.C Penney parking lot across the Indian River. A few days later, on July 20, Neil Armstrong, then Buzz Aldrin, stepped onto the lunar surface while Michael Collins circled across the far side of the Moon. The three splashed down safely on July 24, 1969.

Apollo-Suyuz Handshake (NASA)

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of another space exploration milestone as well, a friendly gesture between Cold War enemies, the Apollo-Soyuz mission. In 1975, the Soviet Union launched a Soyuz capsule and the United States launched an Apollo capsule. The two capsules docked in orbit on this date, and Tom Stafford and Alexey Leonov gave rise to the first outer-space handshake between nations. (Watch the docking HERE.)

We are no longer surprised by this sort of serendipity, by the fact that important historical events in two different realms about which we write—nuclear history and space exploration—would occur on the same date, years apart in the twentieth century. We find that this sort of serendipity happens regularly, while other dates contain nothing of import for our work at Lofty Ambitions.

What continues to surprise us is a different type of serendipity, one in which we seem actively involved. As we draft this post and realize that tomorrow marks the anniversary of Apollo-Soyuz, we have just watched the film The Far Side of the Moon, about which we knew almost nothing when we added it to our Netflix queue. The title, for us, was enough. It turns out that Alexey Leonov, the Soviet hand in that interstellar, Cold War handshake, plays a prominent role in The Far Side of the Moon. We don’t want to give too much away—the film is not about Leonov but about a philosophy of science student and his weatherman brother, in the wake of their mother’s death. We would have enjoyed the film any time because it is quirky, tells a character-driven story, and tries interesting cinematic moves. But that we happened to watch this film when it would be especially meaningful to us because of this anniversary is one of the pleasures we keep finding in our work together here.

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