Atomic Testing Museum, Las Vegas

  
  - darkometer rating:  5 -
 
As the name spells out: a museum, located in Las Vegas, USA, that is devoted to the rather exotic single topic of nuclear weapon testing, ranging in terms of test location from Trinity via the Pacific to the NTS, … and in terms of test type from atmospheric via high-altitude to underground tests. Furthermore it also covers adjacent topics such as nuclear waste storage.
  
It's a special interest museum, for sure, yet it's well-made and informative as well as an "entertaining" experience, at least for more techie-minded tourists. It certainly provides a stark contrast to the more mainstream, established entertainment offers in the "city of sin" …

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

   

More background info: Recently, the museum has even been awarded the "National Museum" accolade, partly thanks to an affiliation with the Smithsonian (see Enola Gay, Washington D.C.), but it's usually still referred to simply as the Atomic Testing Museum. It's the only one of its kind in the country anyway – unless you also count the thematically wider-reaching National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, or the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, both of which also have sections covering the topic of nuclear testing.
 
If you think that a museum dedicated solely to such an "esoteric" topic as atomic testing is a very strange thing to be found in "sin city" Las Vegas, then think again: Las Vegas is indeed the city closest to the USA's principal nuclear testing ground, namely the NTS (Nevada Test Site), the entrance to which lies just 65 miles (110 km) to the north-west. During the era of atmospheric tests, i.e. especially during the 1950s, the residents of Las Vegas could see the flashes from the atomic bombs … and people would often even flock to the edge of the NTS to get a better view of the mushroom clouds. Indeed it was a popular weekend pastime to go and watch these "spectacles". This means that the topic of atomic testing does form part of Las Vegas local history and culture – like it does nowhere else on Earth. So this is indeed the right place for such a museum.
 
On the one hand it sounds unbelievably crazy that ordinary civilians would have gone to watch atmospheric nuclear tests for "fun", or at least it sounds incredibly naïve from today's perspective of much greater awareness of the health hazards caused by nuclear fallout. But on the other hand, I can't suppress a feeling of deep envy for anyone who has ever witnessed such a spectacle. Had I lived in Las Vegas at that time, I would have gone to see such a thing too! I'm sure of it.
 
However, atmospheric testing at the NTS ended with the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) even before I was born (in 1963), so I would never have that chance … unless suddenly thing should go extremely awry politically in the future and either testing was resumed or, much worse still, an atomic bomb was set off for real near me, in which case it would probably be the last thing I'd see in my life. That thought puts a damper on my feelings of envy though …
 
After the PTBT came into effect in the early 1960s, testing could only continue underground. At first the people actually performing the tests weren't happy with being forced underground. They would have preferred more atmospheric tests – and no doubt also for the experience of the visual spectacle. But once underground testing became the norm, science and sense won them over. As it turned out, from the point of view of getting the scientific data right, going underground actually improved things! The results were better, more accurate, more usable.
 
Even underground testing came to an end shortly after the end of the Cold War – the USA's last nuclear test detonation was performed in 1992. The roles of the former proving grounds have subsequently changed accordingly – see under the separate entry for the NTS. Of course, the ambitious Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty has still not been signed and/or ratified by a number of crucial "players" in the nuclear "game" (such as North Korea or Pakistan and India).
 
The Atomic Testing Museum is a relatively recent addition to the range of nuclear tourism offers in the USA; it only opened in 2005 but has been going strong ever since. It's the second best option short of going on a tour of the NTS itself – and certainly more educational (if necessarily less adventurous).
 
 
What there is to see: It is suggested you first watch the introductory film in the theatre – which is designed to look a bit like a bunker. As the film starts there's a "simulation" of an atomic bomb blast, i.e. a bright light flash, rumbling "Sensurround"-like sound effects and a puff of warm air blown at the audience. OK, it may not be the most realistic impression, but a decent try. The film then shows mostly the development of the NTS. This also includes some of the protests against nuclear testing and how this outraged the military personnel at the NTS (in the usual "our work secures the very freedom without which they couldn't even stage such protests!" … though the flawed logic of the implied conclusion of this petulant response is never picked up).
  
The exhibition proper then goes through a series of chapters, with the development of the bomb obviously the prominent early one. In this section the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos and the Trinity test get due mention (and displayed artefacts predictably includes a piece of trinitite).
 
Even more is made of the first series of nuclear tests in the Pacific. Here some artefacts from the Pacific islands where those tests were conducted (cf. Bikini) are on display. Interactive screens show footage of the tests, in particular of the famous Baker shot of Operation Crossroads, which was probably the most photographed test of them all and produced some of the most iconic images of the entire Atomic Age.
 
The establishment of the NTS – the proving ground just north of Las Vegas itself is naturally a main theme of the museum. Life at the test site is covered as well as the tests themselves. For instance there is a mock-up of an office at Mercury camp, the main "town" within the NTS.
 
Popular culture is another thread of the exhibition. On display are numerous exhibits from the optimistic early days of the Atomic Age when mushroom clouds were still seen as a positive symbol of American power and superiority. Thus the marketing of even the most mundane consumer products evoked references to the atom bomb, from simple matches to wine bottle labels and "Atomic cocktails" recipe books.
 
On a more sombre but still optimistic note, the issue of civil defence, i.e. "survival under nuclear attack" is another theme covered. Alongside "survival manuals" you can see items such as "survival crackers" or cans of drinking water that used to be distributed to fallout shelters across the US.
 
There's quite a lot of interactive multi-media stuff to keep things entertaining. The pinnacle of this is an installation where visitors are invited to "press the button" to release an atom bomb … obviously in the form of a film projection only.
 
Some genuine military hardware is on display too, of course, including a number of atomic bomb casings – e.g. an early thermonuclear airdrop device of monstrous dimensions, but also the smallest ever deployed nuclear howitzer projectile. Various test apparatus can be seen too, one of them an only recently retrieved instrumentation package used inside a bunker under an atmospheric test conducted in 1957.
  
A major theme of the exhibition is underground testing. Charts, diagrams and photos illustrate the various techniques employed. A mock-up of a test "rack" complete with a shiny metallic cone labelled "nuclear test device" is a predictable item here. Surprisingly much is made of the mining aspect involved in preparing underground tests. There is even a small totally non-nuclear-related section about the rescue of the those miners who were stuck underground for months in Chile in 2010.
 
Some of the more esoteric experiments conducted at the NTS are covered as well, including the sci-fi-like prototypes of nuclear powered propulsion systems, or the infamous BREN tower. At its top this had a "bare" nuclear reactor, i.e. one without any protective shield around it to contain radiation (the acronym stands for 'Bare Reactor Experiment Nevada'). Its only purpose was to deliberately irradiate a mock-up "Japan town", in order to study radiation effects in comparison to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
 
A kind of continuous thread is provided through panels with historical timelines, ordered chronologically by decade, from the 1940s to the 1990s, listing world events, especially political developments, next to key stages in the history of nuclear testing, and thus embed the latter in a wider context.
 
The Soviet side also gets a little bit of coverage. The Shagan test, the USSR's equivalent to the USA's Operation Ploughshare, is mentioned. In these tests, "civilian" uses of atomic bombs for earth-movement were tested, which resulted e.g. in the Sedan Crater at the NTS and the "Atomic Lake" crater at the Polygon in what today is Kazakhstan. There's also a small section about a Soviet inspection visit to the NTS in 1988 … i.e. shortly before the end of the Cold War.
 
Personally, I found the section about photographing atomic bomb tests the most interesting part of the museum. Here you can see some amazing stills made with super-high-speed cameras from the first few milliseconds of a nuclear fireball's formation. A few of the shapes look more like some sort of microbe or virus, or even like alien creatures. On a couple of screens you step through famous weapons effect test footage frame by frame to study the awesome and frightening power of an atomic bomb blast on houses, forests, vehicles and so on.
 
Some of the newer purposes that the NTS has found since testing ended are also covered in a couple of additional sections. One concerns the issue of nuclear waste storage as well as other military and civilian sides of the nuclear industry such as test ban monitoring, emergency preparedness, stockpile stewardship, and radiation effects research (including subcritical tests). On yet another interactive installation in this section you can measure the radioactivity of various objects yourself.
 
After yet more shelves full of all manner of measuring equipment such as hand-held dosimeters you eventually arrive at the final section of the museum. Here some pieces of the Berlin Wall kind-of herald the end of the Cold War era, which also meant the end of nuclear testing.
 
Finally there's a piece of a World Trade Center steel girder from New York's "ground zero" – which ushered in the completely new use of that term: now it suddenly referred to the site of a building that had collapsed as a result of a terrorist attack rather than to the centre of a nuclear explosion (also known as its hypocentre). Of course, this can also be seen as a symbol of a new era – one in which international terrorism is perceived as the primary threat to the world, and no longer that of a nuclear Armageddon showdown between the superpowers. Although both sides do of course still retain large nuclear arsenals – so the threat of nuclear war isn't actually over, it's just much more removed from public awareness these days.
 
Finally there's a museum shop in the foyer outside the main exhibition – and next to the entrance to an additional temporary exhibition space (where an "Area 51 – Myth or Reality" exhibition about Ufology failed to get me interested enough to go in). The shop has some fun items as well as a few informative ones, but can't quite compete with the much more comprehensive shops at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque or that adjacent to the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos.
 
All in all, the Atomic Testing Museum is a worthwhile addition to any dark/nuclear tourist's itinerary in the south-west USA. It's certainly well designed, if a little crammed. There never seems to be enough space for both exhibits and visitors. This also means that if it gets crowded you may often have to wait before you can proceed to a certain artefact or interactive screen. Indeed the place is surprisingly popular – I didn't expected this in "sin city" where visitors are normally expected to be more interested in quite different forms of self-destruction (financial and health-wise). I wouldn't have though they'd also be so curious about the age of atomic testing of decades ago. I stand corrected – happily, as it means that museums such as this one have a prosperous future ahead of them. And that's clearly in my interest!
 
 
Location: a bit under a mile and a half (2 km) to the east of the middle section of The Strip (with Caesars Palace and the Bellagio), at 755 E. Flamingo Rd., Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.
 
Google maps locator: [36.1141,-115.1485]
  
 
Access and costs: a bit off the centre of the Strip action, but fairly easy to reach all the same; not particularly cheap.
 
Details: from The Strip, i.e. Las Vegas Boulevard, and the intersection with Flamingo Road it is a bit of a walk (and not an especially pleasant one at that), but there is a bus, line 202, which goes along Flamingo Road (roughly every 15 minutes). Most visitors, however, will probably drive it. There is a large (free) car park directly by the museum. It is fairly well signposted too.  
 
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays only from 12 noon (closed on the usual holidays).
 
Admission fee: 14 USD (11 USD for senior citizens, adolescents, students, Nevada residents and members of the military; children under 7 free … but you wonder what a six-year-old may get out of all this nuclear stuff …). No video photography allowed.
 
 
Time required: on average somewhere between one and two hours – potentially a lot longer if you want to read everything and study all the material available on interactive screens.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Adjacent to the museum's permanent exhibition proper there is also a separate space for temporary exhibitions – at the time of my visit in April 2012 there was a much-hyped affair called "Area 51 – Myth or Reality". It was obviously enough about all those alleged UFO sightings at that legendary secret military base north of Las Vegas, as well as at Roswell, New Mexico. But I gave this exhibition a miss since I don't believe in conspiracy-theoretical Ufology anyway, especially if it involves aliens who invariably look like big-headed humanoid children (as the cliché seems to demand), and also simply because I didn't want to fork out the 6 USD additional admission fee.
 
The NTS itself, i.e. the actual test site that the Atomic Testing Museum is mostly about, can also be visited – in theory. The Department of Energy (DOE) does offer public tours of the test site, which typically even depart from right outside the Atomic Testing Museum. Sounds like the perfect combination, then. In practice, however, it's extremely difficult to get on one of those tours since they run only once a month, have limited capacity (one coach load) and they tend to book out many months in advance, if not a whole year. You need to register way in advance anyway for the bureaucracy/security clearance. And they can be rescheduled or cancelled at short notice. In short: it takes a lot of determination and a bit of luck. So far I've not even got as far as attempting it. It remains a pretty intriguing idea, though …
 
While the NTS is the "mother" of all nuclear proving grounds by size and the number of tests conducted, the actual original "mother" of all tests, i.e. the very first one in history, was of course Trinity in southern New Mexico. The Trinity Site, which is within White Sands Missile Range military area, can be visited, albeit on even rarer occasions, namely on only two days a year: on the first Saturdays in April and October, respectively. However, you do not have to pre-book or register for security clearance. You just turn up in your vehicle on the day, show an ID and then it's usually a breeze getting in. On the other hand, there isn't an awful lot to see at the site these days. A dedicated nuclear tourist will probably want to see this all the same, if only for the historical significance.
  
The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque north of WSMR is a cool place for seeing a lot of hardware, not so much of nuclear testing but actual weaponry, including a number of large-scale artefacts … recommended!
 
Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project was based to develop the Trinity bomb can also be visited and is the home of the Bradbury Science Museum, which also covers the topic of nuclear testing in some depth, including the current subcritical testing techniques (somewhat underrepresented at the Las Vegas museum) as well as the challenges of the Stockpile Stewardship Programme. Of all these three museums it is probably the most science-heavy.
 
Back in Las Vegas itself, there are also other attractions of a dark hue – but with this being Las Vegas you can never tell for how long they will be around. At the time of my visit in April 2012, there were two exhibitions of a dark-tourism theme, both located at the Luxor resort. One was "Bodies – the exhibition" which purports to be similar to the controversial "Body Worlds" equivalent that was pioneered by Gunther von Hagens in the 1990s. This newer version exhibition of plastinated bodies is perhaps even more controversial (rumour has it that the bodies used may be those of executed Chinese prisoners!) but also less elaborate, going by the reviews I've read.
 
The other exhibition was about the Titanic – it will probably not be a permanent fixture but just part of the worldwide hype due to the 100th anniversary of the disaster. It promised to be an "artefacts exhibition", displaying hundreds of objects retrieved from the wreck.
 
However, I cannot report first-hand on either of these exhibitions since I was too short of time to explore them …. and I also balked at the extremely expensive admission charge of 32 USD (each!).
 
Some dark tourists may also find that the new Mob Museum is to their liking in that it has as its theme the world of organized crime/the Mafia (it's at 300 Stewart Avenue, north of downtown just two blocks from Fremont Street; open 10 a.m. to 7/8 p.m., admission 18 USD).
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: oh, come on … it's obvious – this is Las Vegas after all! Its purpose in life is entertainment – on a super-grand scale (oh, and gambling, of course). The range of attractions is huge and ever changing – so it's pointless even to try and list them here. Suffice it to say that many top sites, such as the big casino-cum-hotel-cum-resorts on the Strip are garish on a stellar level and just totally crazy. The Venice-copy at "The Venetian", complete with gondolas on artificial canals under an artificial sky, is probably the pinnacle of simply baffling artificialness … or maybe just the tip of the iceberg? They already have an artificial Paris, an artificial New York, an artificial Egyptian pyramid, and so on and so forth. Who knows what else they will come up with next?
 
Fremont Street, the heart of the very oldest part of Downtown Las Vegas, has meanwhile seen an "upgrade" with an LED-light-covered roof that regularly displays a colourful, and in its own way also garish show, while it also retains elements of "old-style" Las Vegas (neon lights and all).
 
For those who feel the need to escape all this exhausting over-the-topness, Lake Mead, the body of water created by the famous Hoover Dam south-east of Las Vegas, is a popular outdoors destination out of town. Otherwise, some of the USA's great National Parks aren't too far away either, including the most famous and grandest of them all, the Grand Canyon (cf. Barringer Crater).
 
 
  
  • Atomic Testing Museum 01 - outsideAtomic Testing Museum 01 - outside
  • Atomic Testing Museum 02 - new National accoladeAtomic Testing Museum 02 - new National accolade
  • Atomic Testing Museum 03 - insideAtomic Testing Museum 03 - inside
  • Atomic Testing Museum 04 - insideAtomic Testing Museum 04 - inside
  • Atomic Testing Museum 05 - filmAtomic Testing Museum 05 - film
  • Atomic Testing Museum 06 - reflected in pop cultureAtomic Testing Museum 06 - reflected in pop culture
  • Atomic Testing Museum 07 - Trinity sectionAtomic Testing Museum 07 - Trinity section
  • Atomic Testing Museum 08 - items from Pacific testsAtomic Testing Museum 08 - items from Pacific tests
  • Atomic Testing Museum 09 - press the red buttonAtomic Testing Museum 09 - press the red button
  • Atomic Testing Museum 10 - big bombAtomic Testing Museum 10 - big bomb
  • Atomic Testing Museum 11 - handy measuring gearAtomic Testing Museum 11 - handy measuring gear
  • Atomic Testing Museum 12 - retrieved instrumentation packageAtomic Testing Museum 12 - retrieved instrumentation package
  • Atomic Testing Museum 13 - testing goes undergroundAtomic Testing Museum 13 - testing goes underground
  • Atomic Testing Museum 14 - predictable exhibitAtomic Testing Museum 14 - predictable exhibit
  • Atomic Testing Museum 15 - experimental atomic engineAtomic Testing Museum 15 - experimental atomic engine
  • Atomic Testing Museum 16 - NTS mapAtomic Testing Museum 16 - NTS map
  • Atomic Testing Museum 17 - craters of Yucca FlatAtomic Testing Museum 17 - craters of Yucca Flat
  • Atomic Testing Museum 18 - how to photograph atomic bombsAtomic Testing Museum 18 - how to photograph atomic bombs
  • Atomic Testing Museum 19 - classic footage frame by frameAtomic Testing Museum 19 - classic footage frame by frame
  • Atomic Testing Museum 20 - all manner of small gearAtomic Testing Museum 20 - all manner of small gear
  • Atomic Testing Museum 21 - unrelated exhibit - piece of the WTCAtomic Testing Museum 21 - unrelated exhibit - piece of the WTC

 
  
  
  
  
  

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