It’s a rather unusual museum.
All it has on display is a few pebbles of glass, a chunk of concrete about the size of a milking stool and a dilapidated, abandoned ranch house.
This museum is open to the public only 12 hours a year – 6 in spring; 6 in autumn. Admission is free, if you’re willing to drive out into New Mexico’s vast, barren and beautiful Jornada del Muerto Desert.
It’s called Trinity Site. It made a lasting impact on our entire world. It’s where the first Atomic Bomb was detonated.
The pebbles of glass on display used to be sand pebbles, but were baked into glass when sucked up into the massive fire ball that lit up this dark desert at 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945.
Visitors are permitted at this earth-shattering site between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on the first Saturday in April and the first Saturday in October. There’s no guide, no speeches, no ceremony, but some photos hang on the steel mesh fence topped with barbed wire circling ground zero.
A military security guard will issue you an information pamphlet after checking your photo identification 27 kilometres from the site.
They recommend you bring your own water. After all, Jornada del Muerta is Spanish for “Journey of a Dead Man”.
Trinity Site is now part of the 2-million-acre White Sands Missile Range, the birth place of America’s space program.
The range has its own museum, which is also free and open most days, about 100 kilometres south of Trinity Site. That’s 100 kilometres as the crow flies. But the U.S. military frowns on tourists driving around on its missile testing range, so it’s actually a 320-kilometre circuitous route between the two museums.
The missile range museum is crammed with information about America’s nuclear program, its pioneering ventures into space and the development of rockets as weapons. The old ranch house at Trinity Site is preserved because it was in the master bedroom where scientists under Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, assembled the bomb. It had been expropriated from the McDonald family, along with their huge spread, early in World War II so young pilots could be trained for bombing runs
The McDonald home was only 3.2 kilometres from the bomb blast. Its windows were blown out and the neighbouring barn lost its roof, but the house survives today.
The closest humans to the detonation were in the triggering bunker 9.4 kilometres from ground zero.
The concrete stump within the perimeter fence was one of four foot pads supporting the 30.48-metre-high steel tower that held the bomb, then referred to only as “the device.” The steel tower was evaporated in the 8154C temperature of the fireball.
The explosion carved out a crater 1.83 metres deep and 12.1 metres across and much of that sand was melted into glass. Glass marbles fell like rain drops from the mushroom cloud.
They would have made great collector items for kids’ games, except they’re radioactive. They’ve all been collected and buried, but for the few on display in a sealed glass case. Although the site is still considered radioactive, scientists claim you’ll absorb only one half of a millirem during a one hour visit to Trinity Site, but when flying from Toronto to Vancouver you’ll absorb two millirems. The average American absorbs 360 millirems a year from the sun and other natural sources of radiation, including medical procedures.
The Atom Bomb project and test was of course highly secret, but lighting up the desert in the dark of night did generate some questions among the hardy souls who ranched out in that wilderness. They were told an ammunition dump had exploded by accident.
A day after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, the story of the Manhattan Project and the light in the desert was made public.
The debate about the merits of that project and its aftermath rage on today.
Between Trinity Site and the White Sands Missile Range museum lies White Sand National Monument. This natural wonder of the world is 712 square kilometers of undulating dunes of pure white gypsum sand. For $3 U.S. per person you can drive into this national park and wander through what looks like the aftermath of a winter blizzard.
Access to White Sands National Monument is from U.S. Highway 70, which cuts across the missile range and is closed to traffic for about an hour anytime a missile is launched.
Most of the wide variety of missiles tested at the range since the end of World War II – including an authentic V-2 rocket similar to the ones Germany fired off at Britain and Belgium – are on display in the museum’s back lot. There’s also a replica of Fat Man – the nickname given to the plutonium device detonated at Trinity Site.