Boom town: Atomic tourism blooms in a western desert

As nuclear age approaches eighth decade, visitors flock to historic bomb craters at New Mexico test sites

TRINITY SITE, New Mexico — Standing a few yards from the spot where the world's first atomic bomb detonated with a blast so powerful that it turned the desert sand to glass and shattered windows more than 100 miles away, tourist Chris Cashel explained what drew him here.

"You don't get to go to very many places that changed the entire world in a single moment," said Cashel as he glanced around the windswept, desolate Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert packed with tourists. "The world was never going to be the same after that."

The military veteran was among thousands of visitors who piled into cars and buses to drive out to the secluded site about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, where Manhattan Project scientists split the atom shortly before dawn on July 16, 1945, ushering in the atomic age. The successful test of the nuclear "gadget" unleashed a blast equivalent to 19 kilotons of high explosive, and led to the devastation of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weeks later.

The sagebrush-ringed spot lies on the White Sands Missile Range and is the most famous of a number of U.S. atomic weapon-related tourist attractions, as the nuclear age approaches its 70th anniversary next year. The popular, informal trail includes tours to the former Cold War bomb proving grounds in Nevada that are routinely booked up months ahead, as well as popular tours of an inter-continental ballistic missile silo hidden deep beneath the Arizona desert.

Legislation, meanwhile, to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park to preserve sites in New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington state related to the project led by physicist Robert Oppenheimer is currently being considered by Congress.

The Trinity Site "open house" earlier this month drew about 4,000 visitors from as far afield as Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom, who beat a trail out to the spot where the explosion created heat so intense it felt "like opening an oven door, even at ten miles," according to one eyewitness account.

Visitors milled around ground zero and scoured the ground for fragments of green "Trinitite" — a glass-like substance forged from superheated sand sucked up into the world's first nuclear fireball — and posed for photographs by a stone obelisk marking the blast's hypocenter. "There are all kinds of reasons for coming," said Jim Eckles, a docent at the site explaining its powerful allure. "There are kids here for their science class. There are World War Two vets here because they'll tell you it saved their life. They didn't have to go to the Pacific to fight the Japanese, island to island to island." 

Visitors milled around ground zero and scoured the ground for fragments of green "Trinitite" — a glass-like substance forged from superheated sand sucked up into the world's first nuclear fireball.
Massive Sedan Crater, 320ft deep in desert
National Nuclear Security Administration

As World War Two segued into the Cold War, the sparsely populated U.S. West became key in the scramble to develop, test and deploy ever more powerful nuclear weapons. The region was a vital part of America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union. But there was an unexpected side effect — a tourism industry was also born.

During the heyday of above-ground testing at the former Nevada Test Site in the 1950s and early 1960s, hoteliers in Las Vegas 65 miles away cashed in by offering "Atomic Cocktails" and a "Miss Atomic Blast" beauty pageant. Parties to view the curling mushroom clouds were also a popular draw.

That fascination is still there. Tours to the site where 1,021 nuclear detonations were carried out between 1951 and 1992 are currently booked up through December. No cameras, binoculars or tape recorders are allowed, and background checks are required for all visitors to the area, since renamed the Nevada National Security Site.

The highlight is "doom town" — houses, bomb shelters and even a steel and concrete bank vault — built to see how they stood up to a nuclear onslaught. The homes were painted, furnished and populated with eerily lifelike mannequins dressed in the latest fashions donated by a Las Vegas department store.

Visitors also get to see the Sedan Crater, a 1,280-foot wide and 320-foot deep depression formed by a 104-kiloton blast to test the feasibility of using nuclear bombs for peaceful activities such as mining and construction – an idea almost unthinkable now.

The Southwest atomic trail also includes the Titan Missile Museum, a silo hidden deep beneath the desert south of Tucson, Arizona, which houses a decommissioned inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that was on the front line of the Cold War from 1963 to 1987. The ten-story tall Titan II was topped with a nine-megaton thermonuclear warhead – hundreds of times more powerful than the Trinity device. Capable of launching in 58 seconds, it could reach its target more than 6,300 miles away in about 30 minutes.

That level of destruction disturbs some who visit. "It's kind of humbling," said John, an 18-year-old student from Minnesota, who sat in a chair at the command center and initiated a simulated launch sequence. "Someone can turn a key and in a split second destroy an entire city, miles and miles away." 

Decommissioned ICBM
Titan Missile Museum

Arms-reduction agreements cut strategic nuclear weapon stockpiles by about 80 percent after the Cold War ended. The diminishing fear of a nuclear doomsday, together with increased access to some of the previously classified weapon-related sites, is spurring interest in the sites today, experts said.

"You have basically an entire generation that has grown up with the thought of nuclear annihilation as something that is historical," said Sharon Weinberger, co-author with Nathan Hodge of "A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry."

"There's also more and more of these sites that are now accessible and being decommissioned," she added.

For those drawn to the attractions scattered across the rugged West, the experience is invariably thought-provoking. The visit left Socorro resident Mary Bjorklund pondering whether the bomb's terrible destructive power had brought any net benefit. "I will think about all the people that lost their lives in Japan. Then I will think about all the people that it was supposed to save by ending World War Two. It makes you thoughtful," she said.

Among visitors on a fully-booked tour of the Titan Missile Museum was a retired U.S. Air Force officer, Randy Hartley, who served on the crew at the site from 1978 to 1982. Living for years with the ever-present possibility of having to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike made him particularly philosophical about the atomic age.

"I think that anyone who has been associated with these weapons would wish they had never been around, would wish that we had never done the Trinity bomb or the Manhattan Project ... But you can't put the genie back in the bottle," he said. "I want people to understand the fear and the horror of these weapons, to propel us to do what we can do to break down barriers between our fellow inhabitants of this earth."

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