This month you can tour Trinity Site, where the atomic age
began in 1945.
by Mary Syrett
"Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen." So said an American soldier who witnessed the cataclysmic event.
The Atomic Age dawned dramatically at 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert. The first atomic explosion came less than 50 years after the discovery of radioactivity in 1896; it brought many threads of physics, technology and politics together. The manmade thunder that echoed off the Oscura Mountains that day continues to reverberate throughout the modern world. The test was code-named "Trinity" and the place where it transpired came to be known as the Trinity Site.
Twice each year, on the first Saturday in April and October, the site — part of White Sands Missile Range — opens for public tours. This month, on April 6, you can drive through the famed Stallion Gate and see what in 1945 was the proving ground for America's greatest secret.
The story of Trinity Site begins with formation of the Manhattan Project in June 1942. The project was given responsibility for designing and building an atomic bomb. At the time it was believed to be a race to beat the Germans, who, according to some intelligence reports, were building their own atomic bomb (in fact, hindsight showed they were not).
Under the Manhattan Project, three large facilities were constructed. At Oak Ridge, Tenn., gas diffusion and electromagnetic processing plants were built to separate uranium 235 from its more common form, uranium 238. Hanford, Wash., became the home for nuclear reactors that produced a new element called plutonium. Both uranium 235 and plutonium are fissionable and can be used to produce atomic explosions.
Los Alamos was established in New Mexico as the place to design and build the bomb. At Los Alamos, many of the greatest scientific minds of the day labored over the theory and actual construction of the device. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had studied at Harvard, Cambridge, Gottingen, Leyden and Zurich before joining the faculty of the California Institute of Technology in 1929, led the group.
New Mexico, a land of deserts, mountains and canyons, was an ideal place to conduct secret wartime work, although "secret" may be an exaggeration — people who lived there knew something was up. They saw nearby Santa Fe bustling with newcomers, and they got construction jobs on a mesa known simply as "The Hill," putting up acres of apartments and laboratories. But no matter how much residents of New Mexico knew or guessed about the super-secret weapons project that was under way, they were forbidden to talk about it under wartime rules.
When the Manhattan Project came to the mesa, the Army seized 54,000 acres and relocated everyone who lived there, including Pueblo Indians, a few ranchers, and the occupants of a private boarding school for boys. At first the Army planned for about 30 scientists, but by 1945 the population had swollen to 7,000, including the families of scientists, engineers and construction workers, as well as military personnel. Since the project was super-secret, those who were recruited to live at Los Alamos were given only the vaguest idea where they were moving and why. Their address was a cryptic Post Office Box 1663, Santa Fe.
The streets of the new town were unpaved, the water supply was unreliable, the buildings were firetraps, and there was continual fear of epidemics. The stress level was tremendous because of the secrecy and high stakes of the lab's mission, played out against the tragedies of war and the miseries of living on the forbidding mesa.
Among the scientists who worked together on the Manhattan Project, under Oppenheimer, were Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller and Leo Szilard. The men all used aliases during the war to prevent their whereabouts from becoming known. Fermi, for example, was known as "Mr. Farmer." Despite the secrecy, several of those working at Los Alamos — most notably Klaus Fuchs — would later be revealed as Soviet spies.
You may ask, where was Albert Einstein in all this history? The German-born physicist, who became world famous for his theories of relativity, in 1942 stated: "I decline to participate in creation of a weapon of mass destruction whose consequences could not be predicted." After World War II, Einstein urged international control of all atomic weapons.
At Los Alamos, scientists devised two designs for an atomic bomb — one using uranium 235 and another using plutonium. The uranium bomb was a relatively simple device and scientists were confident it would work without testing. The plutonium bomb was more complex and worked by compressing plutonium into a critical mass to sustain a chain reaction.