The National Atomic Museum
1905 Mountain Rd. NW

Albuquerque, NM

April 26th, 2001

2004 NOTE: Recently the Museum has been moved from Kirtland Air Force Base to Old Town Area in Albuquerque. This is something that is in the process of being done across the nation. Many museums that were located on military bases are being moved to areas that are more accessible to the public.

On the outskirts of Albuquerque, NM, situated in the middle of Kirtland Air Force Base is a small museum dedicated to perhaps the most significant 30 seconds in the 20th century. Inside we found the story of the atomic age. The beginning was not a humble search for the comforts of humanity, nor the desire to improve man's life through the sciences. In 1939, in Germany, Hitler was not interested in humanity. He was bent on the destruction of the known world through conquest and war. So those scientists who had not fled the ravages of war were put to work to create the first Atomic bomb. In July of 1940, the Germans were ready to build their first sub-critical uranium pile (preliminary reactor). By 1941 the Germans were winning the race for an atom bomb. They had a heavy-water plant, high-grade uranium compounds, a nearly complete cyclotron, capable scientists and engineers, and the greatest chemical engineering industry in the world. By the time the US had entered the war, it had initiated its own program under the Manhattan Engineer District of the Army Corps of Engineers. By 1942 America knew they needed an atomic bomb faster then either Germany or Japan. General Leslie R. Groves was placed in charge and immediately created three remote construction sights. One at Oakridge, TN., another at Hanford, WA., and the final one in a small crossroads in New Mexico called Los Alamos. The main experiments were conducted in a small laboratory beneath the University of Chicago's abandoned Stagg Field football stadium. What advantages Germany had in the beginning were lost as various groups within the German high command competed with each other for control of the project, and on December 2, 1942, Italian born physicist Enrico Fermi, a Nobel-Prize winner who had fled Fascist Europe. succeeded in creating the first ever sustained nuclear reaction. The theory behind the pile was that if enough uranium was placed in close proximity, neutrons emitted from the uranium atoms would cause a nuclear chain reaction. In addition, if the neutrons were slowed down by a "moderator" they were much more likely to hit and split another uranium atom, causing the reaction to continue. While the Germans had rejected graphite in favor of "heavy water" for their moderator, the US had no source of heavy water. Scientists in the US realized that pure graphite would work better as a neutron moderator than heavy water and they could obtain the graphite without difficulty. The work raged on as did the war, now with thousands of scientists and tradesmen dedicated to producing a bomb. Then in 1944, it happened near Alamogordo, the first atomic bomb was detonated, shaking the ground and creating a light that could be seen for hundreds of miles. It would be almost a year before an actual bomb that could be dropped would be perfected. The war was winding down. Germany had surrendered, but Japan, although no longer capable of winning, refused to surrender, preferring to fight on in a war they could only lose. Japan had been forced back onto its own Islands. The battle for one of them, Okinawa, had produced 49,000 American casualties. It was estimated that to continue the war to its final conclusion would cost more the a million American lives. President Truman, faced with these facts, elected to use the bomb in order to shorten the war. The first nuclear bomb ever used in warfare was called "Little Boy". Little boy exploded approximately 1800 feet over Hiroshima, Japan on the morning of August 6th, 1945. Immediate deaths were estimated between 70 and 130 thousand. A Boeing B-29 dropped the bomb piloted by Col. Paul W. Tibbets who had named the plane, the "Enola Gay", after his mother. The bomb was 10 feet long and only 28 inches in diameter. It weighed just under 9000 lbs. It was never tested before used in the war. Little Boy was a gun-type device. A sub-critical piece of uranium (U-235) was placed at each end of a large gun barrel. When the bomb was detonated, a high explosive charge drove one piece of the u-235 down the barrel till it joined with the other piece of u-235. A super-critical mass resulted. This produced an explosion with the power of approximately 13 thousand tons of TNT. While the impact of such a tremendous explosion staggered the minds of the population, President Truman, being urged by most of his advisers, drove home the impact with a second bomb three days later. "Fat Man" was the second, and last nuclear weapon used in warfare. Dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9th, 1945, Fat Man devastated more then two square miles and caused more than 45,000 immediate deaths. US Army Air Force Major Charles Sweeny piloted the B-29. The Fat Man was an implosion device. Several thousand pounds of conventional explosives surrounded a ball shaped, sub-critical mass of Plutonium 239. At the time of detonation, implosion took place. The plutonium then went into the supercritical stage. It exploded with a force of proximately 20 thousand tons of TNT. This was produced by a bomb only 10 feet long and 5 feet in diameter, weighing just over 10,000 pounds. Several days later, Emperor Hirohito wrote "I have given serious thought to the situation prevailing at home and abroad and have concluded that continuing the war means destruction for the nation and a prolongation of bloodshed and cruelty in the world. I cannot bear to see my innocent people suffer any longer... The time has come when we must bear the unbearable. I swallow my tears and give my sanction to the proposal to accept the Allied proclamation on the basis outlined by the Foreign Minister." Thus bringing an end to hostilities and an end to the greatest War the World has ever known.
There were many other aspects to the museum but it was this focal point that I had come to explore. Outside, assembled around the museum were the various, now ancient delivery systems for future bombs never used. I remember as a child outside Fort Bragg, NC, the afternoons when they would fire the "Honest John" cannon. The whole ground would shake. But Nuclear war had stopped, hopefully forever, in 30 seconds over Japan. A little piece of history now secured in a small museum in Albuquerque, NM. For further information check out their website:

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