Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos
Los Alamos is the place where the USA
's very first nuclear weapons
were developed in the Manhattan Project
. Today it is still home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The active lab itself is obviously out of bounds, but you can take walking tours of the formerly "closed" town and catch a glimpse of Robert Oppenheimer
's house and other buildings of significance in the atomic context.
The main point of interest, however, is the Bradbury Science Museum
. It tells the story of Los Alamos, the development of the atomic bomb and its continuing legacy, features replicas of the Trinity
"gadget" as well as of the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima
, and also covers the Laboratory's current role in research and stockpile stewardship.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The story of the Manhattan Project
and the role Los Alamos played in it is too long to be retold here in any detail – scores of books and other resources already do that sufficiently enough anyway. So only a very brief summary has to suffice here.
The Manhattan Project occupied several locations across North America, in particular Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford
in Washington State, where the enriched uranium and the plutonium for the Trinity
bombs would eventually be produced, respectively. But for the most crucial and most secret research a much more remote location was soon deemed necessary. Los Alamos was chosen as such a remote location, despite poor access roads. Still, it was here that the "secret Atomic City" would be built.
The complex's initial nucleus (if that's a suitable term in this context) was an already existing building, the Los Alamos Ranch School, a Boy Scout centre that had been here since 1917. From November 1942, however, the school had to move out as the property was appropriated for the Manhattan Project.
Additional buildings to house all the staff soon sprang up – but the early years must have been rough in this remote and exposed location high up on the ridges (mesa) between deep canyons.
Secrecy was naturally high too – in fact, the Lab had a cover-up post code in Santa Fe, from where all supplies also had to be laboriously carted up to "the hill", as Los Alamos's location was informally known. In this isolated secret town, scores of high-flying scientists took up base to develop America's atomic bomb over the next couple of years.
Scientific project leader at Los Alamos was Robert Oppenheimer
; other notables included Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi and Hans Bethe. At times several Nobel Prize winners worked at Los Alamos. This amassed brain-power went hand in hand with massive funding – it is estimated that the Manhattan Project cost ca. 2 billion USD in total (something approaching 25-30 billion in today's money!).
I won't go into the details of the physics of the bomb here, suffice it to say that two designs emerged from the Los Alamos research, or rather its subproject that was sub-code-named "Project Y": one was a simpler gun-type uranium bomb, later used untested over Hiroshima
, and a more complex plutonium implosion design. The latter was to become the Nagasaki
bomb – but it was this design that the Manhattan Project researchers needed to test for real.
This was done at the so-called Trinity
site near Alamogordo further south in New Mexico – in the middle of the desert north of White Sands. The test took place on 16 July 1945 … the bomb went off as planned – and the atomic age had begun.
After the use of the new weapon at the end of WWII
, the Manhattan Project still continued – and was involved in the post-war tests at Bikini
– before being disbanded in 1947.
The Los Alamos laboratories, however, remained one of the main centres of nuclear and atomic weaponry science in the USA
… and they continue to this day. The focus of LANL's science has, however, shifted somewhat. Instead of the development of new nuclear weapons, the management of the existing arsenal, called stockpile stewardship in official lingo, is one of the Lab's main concerns. In addition it has branched out into various adjacent scientific fields, including biotechnology and computing (Los Alamos has some of the largest computer processing power available anywhere). It is now run under the umbrella of the government's Department of Energy (DOE).
As a town, Los Alamos continues to be dominated by its nuclear lab – over half of Los Alamos's ca. 20,000 residents work there. As you would expect for such a place it is a well-off community … though it doesn't show too much, at least not for the casually visiting tourist.
The museum takes its name from Norris E. Bradbury, the Laboratory's director in the years 1945 to 1970. Its first, still more informal incarnation opened in 1954, moved to larger premises in the 1960s, and again to its present central Los Alamos location in 1993.
What there is to see:
The main port of call for tourists in Los Alamos is the Bradbury Science Museum, where the history of the place, the Manhattan Project
and the National Laboratory's continued role within the nuclear complex in the USA
is commodified for visitors.
In addition you can take walking tours, either independently or guided, such as those offered by the Los Alamos Historical Society (less mobile visitors can also take commercial tours by van). On such tours you'd see some of the historic buildings associated with the Manhattan Project, such as Robert Oppenheimer
's home or the original Ranch School house, where it all began. Except for the latter, which houses the Historical Society's local historical, geological and anthropological museum, all these buildings can only be seen from the outside. In other words, they are "just houses", as the reception desk clerk at the museum put it. The laboratory installations (some deep underground) that are currently in use are naturally still top secret and completely out of bounds for tourists (although there is allegedly at least an information centre on the edge of the Lab complex).
As I was pressed for time after visiting the museum, I just took a little drive around town to see some of the historic buildings from the car window, decided there wasn't really anything spectacular to see or any need to stop to take pictures, and then quickly headed out of town again. So the following account will concentrate solely on the Bradbury Science Museum.
It is advised that visitors first watch the 18-minute introductory documentary film in the main auditorium. It's entitled "The Town that Never Was" and chronicles the founding and development of Los Alamos as the secret place for developing the bomb. The focus here is not so much the technical side but the people involved. (It's in English with English subtitles.)
The historical section about Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project
offers a good mix of both sides, the technical and the people. A wall of photos and short bios with personal stories emphasize the latter. Artefacts and charts concentrate more on the former. Amongst the artefacts on display here are models of the "gadget" (i.e. the Trinity
bomb) and of its detonator; glass display cases hold cameras and measuring equipment, and there are samples of trinitite
and equivalent materials from other ground zeros, including one piece of molten rock from the Semipalatinsk Test Site
and one from a later test at the NTS
(namely the Johnny Boy shot, 1962).
Along a wall full of charts, images, documents, a timeline, etc. are also a row of video screens with headphones and little stools for visitors to sit on. At these stations, shorter videos (between ca. 3 to 7 minutes) can be played. Topics include: the WWII
background, the Ranch School, "roughing it" – the early days at Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project/Project Y, Trinity, and short accounts of the bombings of Hiroshima
. The story of Robert Oppenheimer is also given a separate video – and he's even standing there himself, well, a white plaster statue of him … as well as one of General Leslie Groves, the military head of the Manhattan Project.
The discussion about and the eventual decision to drop the bomb gets a fair amount of space too (see the entries for Hiroshima
under 'background information' for more on this delicate subject). One of the flyers dropped over Japan
warning the populace of the possibility of further bombings after Hiroshima is on display, as is the coded telegram that President Truman received on 17 July while at the Potsdam Conference
about the successful Trinity Test
The WWII and Hiroshima/Nagasaki topic is also picked up in another section at the other end of the museum, called "Defense", where the usual replica casings of the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs feature as the largest artefacts on display. More unusual is the related display of one of the measurement canisters that had hastily been developed to measure the yield of the Hiroshima bomb from a second B-29 plane, The Great Artiste B-29 that was accompanying the Enola Gay
on its fateful mission (which was hardly "defence").
A section about the Cold War
and modern nuclear weaponry is adjacent. Here the triad of the USA
's nuclear deterrent is outlined – land, air, sea – and model specimens of some nuclear bombs are on display, including air-dropped ones and cruise missile warheads.
The issue of stockpile stewardship, i.e. the maintenance and monitoring of the ageing arsenal of nuclear weapons, is given particular attention in this section too – as it is one of the main tasks of the LANL today. In a second auditorium another film about the topic is screened (16 minutes). Related to this are display sections about the decommissioning of nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War and the legacy of all the surplus plutonium.
Nuclear testing is another topic in this "Defense" section, and at a special screen visitors can scroll through classic film material frame by frame (or at any speed they like) to study the horrifying effects of a nuclear blast on e.g. houses – or marvel at the strangely psychedelic shapes and patterns that develop in the first few milliseconds of an A-bomb's fireball formation (see also Atomic Testing Museum
, Las Vegas and NTS
The nuclear testing section includes the move to underground testing at the NTS
, represented in particular through a huge (scale model) "rack" with which a nuclear test device would be sunk into its borehole together with measuring equipment. Finally, sub-critical tests and computer simulation/modelling are given some space as well. These latter sections get rather technical, it has to be said, so some dark tourists may get less out of these sections than more physics-inclined "nerdy" visitors. The museum does, however, take great pains to keep things at a level of complexity that lay visitors can grasp.
The same is true about the central research section of the museum. This also goes well beyond the nuclear weapons theme and includes civilian energy production and the current endeavour to develop alternative forms of generating (and saving) energy or of storing carbon dioxide underground. Yet another separate section called "TechLab Discovery Room" is more directly aimed at younger visitors and provides various playful/educational experiments. Some of the displays in the general (adult) main sections also involve various elements of "interactive-ness", e.g. you can dose-meter certain radioactive samples yourself.
A shop associated with the museum is located in an adjacent building and offers a vast range of books and other materials, largely, but not solely related to the museum's subject matter. Some rather special souvenirs include things like Fat Man key rings and replica Manhattan Project
uniform shoulder patches.
All in all, the Bradbury Science Museum is indeed focused on the science side of the whole topic, though the history is covered well too. Those who are more after the dark drama of the atomic age, and/or want more and larger artefacts to marvel at, are better catered for at the significantly larger National Museum of Nuclear Science and History
Los Alamos is ca. 40 miles (60 km) north-west of Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
. The Bradbury Science Museum is on the corner of Central Avenue and 15th Street in the very centre of town. Many of the main historical buildings from the Manhattan Project era are nearby, mostly to the north-west of the museum.
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track (naturally), but mostly free.
Details: to get to Los Alamos you really need to have your own vehicle and drive. There is a small airport but it's not for commercial flights. Public ground transportation is also very limited, though there are park & ride bus services extending to Santa Fe and even Albuquerque. Some tour operators and B&Bs offer additional pick-up services for visitors without cars too. Most people, however, will use their own or rental cars.
Directions: coming from out of state you'd most likely come into the area on Interstate 25, which runs north to south between Denver, Colorado, and El Paso, Texas. From Santa Fe the drive takes approximately 45 minutes to one hour to cover the ca. 40 miles (60 km): first take US 84/285 north towards Espanola, then take NM502 heading west and up into the mountains to get straight to Trinity Drive, the main artery through Los Alamos. Just beyond the airport, Trinity Drive dips south a bit, while two parallel central streets, Canyon Rd and Central St, branch off to the right. Take the latter, Central St, and continue for four blocks and the Bradbury Science Museum's car park is on the right.
For those actually wanting to stay in Los Alamos there are a few options (though not as many as you might expect), including B&Bs and branches of a couple of well-known hotel/motel chains. Eating-out options are limited, but the usual New Mexican fare is readily available.
Opening times of the museum: Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays and Mondays 1 to 5 p.m. only.
Walking tours can be done independently and for free – using a map will help identifying the significant buildings. Or take a guided tour, such as those by van (ca. 15 USD) advertised right by the Bradbury Museum shop.
Time required: the museum takes between one and two hours, depending on how many of the available videos you want to watch in full. Walking or van tours of the historic centre of the town can add another two hours. So a half day would be an adequate time allocation for most visitors to do Los Alamos to the full.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
As mentioned above, you can also go on tours around historic Los Alamos, though visiting the actual National Laboratories is not an option. Many of the historic buildings that the higher ranks of scientists resided in (including Oppenheimer
) are found on "Bathtub Row, which is actually 20th street but earned its nickname from the fact that these were the "plusher" houses that featured proper bathrooms – a luxury absent in the basic sheds the rest of the workforce were given in the early days of Los Alamos.
The Historical Society also has its own museum on "Bathtub Row". Its exhibition space includes a small section on the Manhattan Project
as well but is mainly about other aspects of local (natural and cultural) history. It is open Monday to Friday 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and 1 – 4 p.m. on Sundays (during the summer season – slightly shorter times on weekdays in winter); admission free, but donations welcome. Address: 1050 Bathtub Row/20th St, just off Central Avenue, a couple of blocks west of the Bradbury Science Museum.
Really committed atomic tourism nerds may revel at what must be a one-of-a-kind junk store called The Black Hole, which was formerly run by an ex-LANL-machinist-turned-Anti-Nukes-Activist. Now run by his descendants (for the time being at least), endless piles of machine parts, lab equipment and all manner of other geeky bric-a-brac are still on view, and mostly for sale too, in a messy junkyard-like site at 4015 Arkansas Avenue on the north-western edge of Los Alamos (Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Possibly the most eccentric place in the whole of Los Alamos.
Further afield: naturally, if you've come all the way to see Los Alamos you probably also want to see the place where all the work of the Manhattan Project culminated in the world's first Atomic bomb explosion at Trinity
, near Alamogordo, further south in the New Mexican desert. However, since the area is still part of the White Sands Missile Range military testing ground, access is extremely restricted. Most of the time there is no access for normal civilians at all, but on two days each year, the first Saturdays in April and October respectively, "Open Days" (aka "Trinity Day") allow members of the general public (including foreigners) to drive to the site and poke around for a bit.
Nearer to Los Alamos, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
is located on the edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is a much larger and more elaborate museum with far more artefacts including may large ones in the open-air part (such as a whole B-52
and various missiles). It too covers the Manhattan Project, but is more wide-reaching in its approach and less science-focused. Most importantly, it also provides some of the best coverage of the Cold War
era anywhere in the USA
(if not the world).
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Practically adjacent to Los Alamos, just south of LANL at White Rock, is the Bandelier National Monument – a canyons- and wildlife-rich network of nature trails, also including ancestral pueblo remains. Further west is the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
The nearest larger tourist hub, and an ideal base for excursions to Los Alamos and the whole of northern New Mexico, is Santa Fe. This "oldest capital" in the US (but only if you count the centuries before New Mexico entered the Union in 1912!) still has a charming Spanish-colonial-cum-native-American kind of mix as its main characteristic. It's a bit commercialized these days, especially on the Plaza with its countless jewellery shops and stalls. Many outdoor ones in front of the Palace of the Governors are run by Native Americans.
But strict rules make sure that at least architecturally a uniform adobe appearance is preserved, even down to the range of colours allowed. This also means there are no high-rise structures, so that the place doesn't really feel like a city or even a town, more like an extended village. But that's part of the charm. Speaking of charming, Santa Fe also has one of the most adorable B&Bs I've ever stayed in in the USA
: the equally adorably named Inn of the Turquoise Bear … it's without a resident bear proper, though one of the dogs, a giant German shepherd, wasn't far off bear size!
Santa Fe/Los Alamos can also serve as bases for further explorations of the north of New Mexico, including in particular Taos as well as the Chaco Canyon with its ancient Pueblo cultural relics.
- BSM 01 - Bradbury Science Museum Los Alamos
- BSM 02 - Bradbury Science Museum interior
- BSM 03 - model of The Gadget
- BSM 04 - detonator of The Gadget
- BSM 05 - cameras and measuring equipment
- BSM 06 - Oppenheimer
- BSM 07 - test site ground materials
- BSM 08 - the science of nuclear testing
- BSM 09 - Little Boy mock-up
- BSM 10 - Fat Man model
- BSM 11 - Fat Man detail
- BSM 12 - modern nuclear weapons
- BSM 13 - stockpile
- BSM 14 - modern H-bomb detonator
- BSM 15 - screen for viewing tests
- BSM 16 - frame by frame famous images
- BSM 17 - underground testing device
- BSM 18 - walking tour advert
- en route to Los Alamos