- Historic Sites
Twice a year hundreds of people make a pilgrimage to the spot where the nuclear age began
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
I am standing where the great blue sky of New Mexico meets the parched white sand of its desert, and where physics changed the course of world history. It is a bright, clear day. There are no clouds, no wind, no disturbance. The circle I’m in—maybe a hundred yards across—is fenced off by barbed wire. Had I been here on July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 A.M., I would have been instantly incinerated by ten-million-degree heat from fissioning plutonium atoms. Not today. Flowers grow, mothers hold children, a Japanese camera crew shoots film, a Russian inspects the scorched ground.
Modern history might be said to have begun on this patch of dirt 110 miles southeast of Albuquerque. It was here, fifty-three years ago, that the United States detonated the first atomic bomb.
That bomb exploded just one hundred feet above me, on a giant steel tower. To my right is what’s left of the tower today—melted tentacles of one of its legs. To my left is a protected patch of sand scorched so intensely it was fused into green glass called Trinitite.
Twice a year—on the first Saturday of April and October —the U.S. government takes people here, to historic ground zero, called the Trinity Site. Anyone can go; there are no reservations or admission charges. Cars simply meet at the Otero County Fairgrounds in Alamogordo, New Mexico. A caravan, with police escorts, departs at 8:00 A.M. sharp for the eighty-five-mile journey across the normally restricted White Sands Missile Range.
There were about eighty cars when I visited in October. “We had more in April,” says a veteran fairgrounds worker. “But in the fall there’s competition from the balloons.” He’s referring to New Mexico’s Kodak Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, during which tourists flock to watch the brightly colored gasbags fly over.
The line of cars, as we roll out of the parking lot, is surprisingly orderly. With headlights on and in single file, we do not stop once crossing the desert, which, even in the fall, is a blistering ninety degrees. This is a live missile base, we are told, and for national security reasons, photographs are prohibited until we get to Trinity. Signs like PELIGROSO, UNEXPLODED LIVE MUNITIONS and DANGER, MISSILE IMPACT AREA are constant reminders.
Trinity was the culmination of the Manhattan Project. Nearby at Los Alamos—and in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington—the best scientific minds in the country and thousands of soldiers and civilians, racing to split the atom before the Germans did, toiled night and day for three frenetic years on something they weren’t even sure would work. It worked all right. With the force of nineteen thousand tons of TNT, the Trinity bomb broke windows 120 miles away when it exploded. “The heat, even at ten miles, was like opening an oven door,” says a former military policeman, Marvin Davis, an eyewitness. A new age had dawned.
After about two hours our caravan slows, and as neatly as when we left the fairgrounds, cars file into parking spots. We are now at Trinity, and ground zero is just a quarter-mile’s walk away.
Before you enter the fenced-in part, there’s a tent with Geiger counters and White Sands employees. Deborah Bingham has answered questions from visitors all over the world—England, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Russia, Mexico. “You see lots of World War II vets who think it was a good thing we invented the bomb,” she says. “But others say they wish the atom was never delved into.”
Radioactivity? “Any out here can be blocked by your skin,” says Lisa Blevins, a radiation-protection specialist. She says touring ground zero for two hours results in about two milliroentgens—less than the radiation absorbed flying coast to coast in a jet-liner. To prove her point, she points the Geiger counter at display items, among them a radium clock dial, some old Fiestaware pottery, and the rare Trinitite glass. The Trinitite produces the fewest number of clicks.
Inside the fenced-in area there’s a mockup of Fat Man (the bomb used at Nagasaki) on a big flatbed truck and a series of old photos. There’s also a jet black monument, proclaiming the site a national landmark. Near it the Japanese movie crew is busy filming a documentary. Two Trinity eyewitnesses are also present: Davis, the military policeman, now in his seventies, and J. C. Alderson, a weatherman.
Trinity looks like almost any other piece of arid land. But if you peer closely at the soil, you’ll see tiny pieces of the residual Trinitite. (Most of it, over the years, has been carted out by the government.) Dangerous? “You would have to eat more than your body weight to have a health problem,” says Bingham.
But Bingham does warn that taking pieces is against the law. Some visitors don’t care. I see them sneaking samples into their pockets.
I’m intrigued by the mix of people. Some seem clueless, as if they might be at Disney World. But others have a serious, inquisitive look. Vladimir Shapovalov, a fifty-year-old Ukrainian scientist and professor of metallurgy, has wanted to see Trinity since childhood.
“I know about this place,” he says. “It is important because nobody knew if Germany would make atomic bombs first. That would have been very bad for all the world, Russia included.” Asked if he feels any irony standing with Americans here, after years of the nuclear arms buildup, Shapovalov flatly says no. “It was only political.” He smiles. “People are the same everywhere, I think.”
Trinity is not commercially exploited like, say, Roswell, of UFO fame. The few souvenirs available—some hats, T-shirts, a mug or two—can be purchased at cost from three small military trucks in the Trinity parking lot. There’s very little advertising for the open houses either; most visitors find out through word of mouth. Still, Blevins, the radiation specialist, says turnout has more than doubled since she started working here in 1987—from nine hundred visitors to around two thousand. “People are beginning to understand the historic significance of this place,” she says.
Overall I find Trinity a moving experience. And however you feel about tampering with the atom, I suspect you might too.
My most significant memory comes as I’m leaving, around noon, to return to Alamogordo with the caravan. To the right of the black monument, in a part of the fenced-in circle where nobody else has wandered, I spy a lone purple wildflower growing out of the sand. I bend down to inspect it, and there, on the desert floor six inches away, are two little pieces of Trinitite, undisturbed and sparkling green in the sun.