A Most Terrifying Museum

I have never felt mortal fear like this. Not when rappelling and I fell and hit the rock face; not when hang-gliding 2,000 feet in the air; not when whitewater rafting over six-foot waves—in a river.

This fear was awakened in a museum—and ultimately confirmed by two more. New Mexico is as much the land of bombs as it is the Land of Enchantment. Welcome to nuclear history, testing the Atomic Bomb, and utter fright for the state of the world.

Recording History

White Sands Missile Range Museum (Alamogordo). You get here after passing through the White Sands Missile Testing Range. My hackles were raised.

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (Albuquerque) is the only Congressionally chartered museum in its field. It’s a Smithsonian Affiliate, which lured me in the first place. They assert that they show both the history of nuclear development and how it’s now used peacefully. They should also say that it’ll scare the crap out of you and you won’t understand the majority of the scientific language, which scares you even more.

I don’t know which is worse: that I don’t understand the children’s exhibits, or that children’s exhibits exist at a nuclear museum.

Bradbury Science Center (Los Alamos) showcases the Manhattan Project—that’s the code name for building the Atomic Bomb.

A Brief History of Nuclear Weapons

Pearl Harbor. Germany was working on nuclear weapons. And Einstein wrote a letter to FDR urging the need for priority research in this area. America “needed a device to end a war.”

Los Alamos, “the town that never was,” became a central location for working on nuclear weapons. Instead of the dispersed research at nine universities and 11 labs across the country, the scientists came together in New Mexico. They kicked out the locals (seriously), and had censored contact with the outside world. They lived in a utopia, were it not for their serious work, with no unemployment, no in-laws, no rich, no poor, no jail, no garages, no sidewalks, no paved roads. All mail went to PO Box 1663 in Santa Fe. Even birth certificates had the same address. And there were many birth certificates, because what else was there to do when not building a bomb to destroy the world?

“The gadget,” as the bomb was called, was tested in White Sands.

White Sands continues to be a missile testing site, consuming a significant part of the state.

testing range_map

Photos courtesy of Flickr

Photos courtesy of Flickr

What’s the Difference between a Bomb and a Missile?

Missiles are programmed to attack a specific place. Bombs are dropped, hopefully with accuracy, and ultimately under the responsibility of the pilot.

Click the pic to advance the slideshow. These are missiles on display at the White Sands Museum.

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Today’s missiles are as smart as a third grader.

Bombs and missiles have so many safeguards and breakpoints for acceleration and space, etc., that working on them is considered quite safe. There’s “only” a one-in-a-billion chance that it’ll explode before it’s supposed to.

For clarification, bombs don’t hit the ground and explode—they disperse at a certain height, sending out all their atomic goodness, and that causes the impact.

My Own Private PTSD

Seeing these missiles, thinking about building a bomb to end war (and a country?), I can readily understand PTSD. I was in shock merely from going to a museum. Imagine working with these daily.

The President carries the weight of the briefcase with the red button. After learning about these arsenals, I wondered why anyone would want to be President. What a massive burden. What incredible guilt. What unfathomable power. And perhaps the latter is the reason.

The A-Bomb and Japan

Why did America employ such a drastic measure? Why open the world to the use of nuclear weapons?

  • Because the Japanese were aggressively consuming territory and people, building an unwilling empire with violence and vile.
  • The Japanese would not surrender. Think of the kamikaze mindset—that comes from generations of indoctrination, and extended from the government to the people. After the first bomb on Hiroshima, the US government told Japanese leaders that another bomb would come if they didn’t accept the Potsdam Declaration. The leaders couldn’t/wouldn’t gather to discuss. This is after one bomb was already dropped.
  • People were dying—civilians and military. There were people in Japan and those interred in taken territories. There were the American soldiers. It was deemed better to kill some with a bomb, than so many more without it.

Conscientious Actions

Staff at the Manhattan Project and military leaders had conflicting feelings, even within each organization: there’s no choice, and what will we start?

The U.S. War Department delivered leaflets to warn the Japanese people of the impending bomb.

japanese leaflet

Still today people have a lot to say. At the Los Alamos museum there’s the opportunity to leave comments. When I was there, they were on book 46. Notice how much one person had to write, and how another says a lot with few words: “history is written by the winners.” I’m making no judgments on what they wrote, simply sharing the impact it had on me.

Los Alamos comment book

Nuclear War as Souvenirs?!

I was disgusted to learn of 1940’s-era lunch boxes that said they were radioactive. And even more disturbed to find tshirts in the gift shop.

pop culture

BTW, a Darth Vader helmet was given to the White Sands Missile Testing Range–a thank you for letting sound engineers record missile launches to use in the beloved Star Wars films.

Unicorns, Teddy Bears, Rainbows, Chocolate

It’s important that these museums exist, disturbing as they are. Not everything in life is sunshine and roses, and we need to be reminded.

My eyes were opened to a world of burden and responsibility and violence that I both wish I didn’t know about and am enlightened for being aware.

Being President absolutely calls for duties in addition to Commander in Chief. But I think a TV show about this kind of reality would inform voters far more than personality and domestic policy. And no, the news doesn’t suffice–it needs to be edu-tainment.


What have you learned about the “ways of the world” that distressed–or even better, comforted–you?

Disclosure–thank you to the Albuquerque Tourism Bureau for the complimentary ticket.

5 Responses


Paula, thank you for the history lesson and goose-bumps immediacy of your visit. It’s a sobering topic and a damned if you do and damned if you don’t decision. You devoutly wish there was no need for the technology. And then you think about it in the context of 911 and North Korea, and you grit your teeth, fold your hands in prayer and thank the scientists and the people of Los Alamos.

A hugely disillusioning thing I learned about the ways of the world took place about 20 years ago in a bar in Milwaukee where I was attending a convention. I got into a conversation with a man there, and the subject turned to government. He asked me what area I would focus on if I were a part of the government, and I replied “hungry children.” He said, “No you wouldn’t. Your first priority would be to make sure there were more hungry children the next term in order to have your budget increased.” I see this type of cynicism at work all over the place, and it, too, is frightening – not nuclear war frightening, but definitely scary and sad.

Karen – how awful. What a bitter man.

We’re just back from Hawaii where we visited Pearl Harbor—the other bookend to the start of the full scale global war—World War II. Notice the Roman numeral “II”. Across all societies and across human history, war is a repeating, ongoing theme. There have always been those able to convince, fool or compel others to be warriors, kamikazis even. Superimpose human cognition in top of this and we are clearly capable of causing and reaping the whirlwind—the seeds of our own destruction are within us. The “thousand points of light” can be extinguished in a heartbeat in a nuclear blast.

OK. I am now totally bummed out.
Just One Boomer (Suzanne) recently posted..Baby Boomer Travel DazeMy Profile

Suzanne – roman numeral II. excellent point. Go watch some YouTube videos on cats and baby animals–it’s truly proven to make you feel better.

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