Monday, April 5, 2010

The Trinity Site

This last weekend I visited the Trinity site in New Mexico, famed for being where the first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16th, 1945. It is open to the public twice a year, the first Saturday of April and October.

I stayed in Socorro Friday night. New Mexico Tech was on my short list of colleges so it was interesting to see it 20 some years later. I came to the conclusion that I made a good choice and probably wouldn't have liked Socorro as much as Grinnell.

I got to the site pretty early Saturday morning, a little after 8am. Took about 15 minutes to get through the line at the entrance. The site is on the White Sands Missile Range so you have to show ID to get in and they tell you that you are not allowed to stop and take photos until you get to the ground zero site (they didn't say anything about snapping pictures out of your window while driving there, however, so I have a few interesting photos!) You drive along and see all kinds of intersting things with weird names, probably acronyms and you can play the "Guess That Acroynym" game.

There was no line for the bus when I got there, so I boarded and went to the Schmid/McDougal House. This unassuming ranch house is where the plutonium core of the bomb underwent final assembly.

Here is the room where it happened.

They made it a "clean room" by putting plastic over the windows and telling people to wipe their feet when they came in...hard to believe it made much difference in the desert.

They restored the house and tried to make it as close as they could to its appearance in 1945. The house is surrounded by ruins of the barn and a couple of windmills outside.

One thing that impressed me is the solemness of the occasion. People spoke softly and showed a lot of respect for the house and the site. There are some displays in the house with old pictures from the summer of '45 and information on the family who built the house and its history.

Then back on the bus to go to ground zero. In the parking lot are a couple of small booths, one stocking primarily books on the atomic bomb and another with the Trinity t-shirts and baseball caps. A food vendor is also set up there (along with the obligatory porta potties).

Ground Zero is about a quarter mile walk from the parking lot and a fence now surrounds the site. Right before you enter, there is an exhibit on radioactivity staffed by an enthusiastic bunch with Geiger counters showing off the radioactivity emitted by everyday items such as cat litter. A historic marker has been erected at Ground Zero.

The bomb was at the top of a 100 foot tall tower. One of the four bases still is visible.

And they had a replica of the Fat Man Casing. Fat Man as dropped on Nagasaki.

There is no visible Trinitite and very little visible evidence of what happened there. There was a bus tour there and the tour guide gave a great talk about the morning of the blast. People were again very somber and respectful. There was no sign of anyone engaging in politics one way or the other. It was presented as history, with all the good and bad that goes with it.

I will say that I am glad the U.S. developed this technology rather than Germany or Japan. Nuclear technology has changed the world, and not just militarily. It has countless applications from energy production to medicine. As terrible as nuclear weapons are, two superpowers both armed with them may have prevented some major wars in the second half of the 20th century.

I know some people argue it was immoral to use the bomb. I have some sympathy for that argument. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate WMDs and we used them. We didn't fully understand everything they did and the effects of radiation poisoning at the time, but we knew one plane could kill tens of thousands of people (or more) instantly.

Others argue we were justified using a variety of arguments such as we didn't start the war (which I think is irrelevant) or that fewer people died in the bombings than would have in an invasion (which is harder to refute, but does that make it right?)

I have thought about it and come to the conclusion that is was the best of bad choices. I would say I give it qualified support. If we did not use the bomb on Japan, we would not have known the horrors of nuclear war. When new weapons are developed, there is a tendency to use them in conflict. Look at chemical warfare in WWI. They were used until the world community decided they were too horrific to use in war. I don't think we would have learned that lesson without someone using nuclear weapons...if that first use came in a US-USSR war, the casualties could have been in the millions or higher.

Let us never forget the lessons of Trinity, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The future of humanity depends on it.

Reprinted with permission from the Half-Astrophysicist Blog.


OrbsCorbs said...

I never thought about the first A-bomb site being a tourist attraction.

We had to use the bomb to end WWII. Could we have blown up an unoccupied island as a display of power to the Japanese? I suppose so. Would that have stopped their aggression? I doubt it. They say that the Japanese military was fanatical. It took two bombs dropped on their own people to convince them.

I agree that it was the best of bad choices, just like our recent elections.

kkdither said...

Thanks for sharing your story. I don't think I can condone war under any circumstances. But, pushed far enough, I would fight... so who knows?

RWWackoStu said...

Very well done. For the historcial perspective I would find this very interesting. I should add this to my places to visit. Thanks for the photos. (Might you be posting the ones you consider "Interesting" from the ride in?

SER said...

Very Nice Post..!!!!!

Thanks for sharing..

Sassa said...

I remember that! At the time the opinion was Truman not only talked the talk but walked the walk. You don't mess with the USA. The story of the piolets is very interesting. Now when you see the pictures of the devistation you give pause to wonder.