Las Vegas, the National Atomic Testing Museum, and the Last Sixty Years

This past weekend found us making our annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Las Vegas. The combination of bright lights, driving distance, and no mid-semester house cleaning/no post-dinner dishwashing is irresistible. It also helps that, over the years, members of our families have happily made the trip to join us. A weekend in Vegas may mean slot machines and poker to some folks, but here at Lofty Ambitions, it means at least one trip to the National Atomic Testing Museum (click HERE for a sense of our visit two years ago).

Ivy Mike

At Lofty Ambitions, we like museums. If the accumulated word count of our writing about museums hasn’t made that fact absolutely clear, we’ll say it again just so that it sinks in: We really like museums. We’ve written professionally about museums for conferences, journals, and books. Where others might plan a vacation based on a specific beach, we’ve been known to plan getaways around how many different museums we can pack into a voyage.

An affiliate museum of the Smithsonian Institution, the layout, exhibit design, and quality of the materials at the National Atomic Testing Museum meets the highest standards of the profession. For those whom are curious about this specific corner of America’s nuclear history, the exhibits are intellectually stimulating and information rich. After just a few minutes of gazing inside the museum, Doug and his father were struck by the fact that this year’s visit nearly coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the two controversial nuclear tests of the early Cold War.

Ivy King

The Operation Ivy series of weapons tests took place on the Enewetak atoll in November 1952. The seventh series of nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States, Operation Ivy consisted of two separate tests: Mike, conducted on November 1, 1952, and King, which was detonated on November 16.  Both tests were designed to push the envelope of what was then known about the design of nuclear weapons.

The Ivy Mike test introduced a couple of new words into the nation’s burgeoning Cold War lexicon: thermonuclear and megaton. Although a previous test, George, had made use of fusion principles (as opposed to the fission that occurs in an atomic weapon), the Mike test is considered to be the first thermonuclear weapons test. In fact, Mike took its name from its anticipated explosive yield, itself a curious word suggesting some sort of harvest. Mike began with an “m”—m for megaton—because its scientists predicted an explosion in the megaton range. Less than a decade after the world had been forced to begin thinking about bombs that exploded with the force of 1,000 tons of TNT—a kiloton—humanity was forced to again expand its definition of destruction when explosions of 1,000,000 tons of TNT were introduced into the world. Aside from its destructive potential, Ivy Mike’s other distinguishing feature was that it was an impractical weapon. Designed by physicist Richard Garmin, Ivy Mike was more than twenty feet tall and weighed more than sixty tons. When Mike was detonated, it provided a staggering example of the kind of destruction that might await humanity’s future. At a yield of over ten megatons, Mike obliterated the patch of land that it occupied. In an instant, Eugelab—an island in the Enewetak atoll chain—was transformed into a mile-wide, 150-foot deep crater. Because of Mike’s design, the radioactive release was enormous, with highly radioactive debris falling into the ocean up to forty miles from ground zero.

King also took its name from its anticipated yield—“k” for kiloton—but it might as well have taken it from its destructive power vis-à-vis the 33 atomic bomb tests that preceded it. At a yield of 500 kilotons, King was the largest atom—fission—bomb designed and tested to that point.

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

These two tests conducted during Operation Ivy were the largest of their time. In fact, when measured in kilotons and megatons—the verbiage of nuclear weapons that is meant to connect the destructive power of nuclear weapons with the more comprehensible world of TNT and chemical explosives—the 10.4 megaton Ivy Mike was more than ten times more powerful than all of the atomic weapons that had preceded it. The previous thirty-three atomic weapons, twenty-nine American bombs, three Russian, and one British, represented an aggregate destructive release of almost 950 kilotons.

In part because the fear and uncertainty of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation was something with which the Lofty duo grew up, we both are drawn to attempt to understand what transpired. That’s why we are drawn back to the National Atomic Testing Museum.


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