The Atomic Blast That Ignited the Future

There, 75 years ago this morning, humankind exploded the first nuclear weapon, a cable-encrusted steel sphere nicknamed “the Gadget.” The site took on the code name of the detonation, Trinity, which its architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, had chosen, inspired by a John Donne holy sonnet: Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free.

The first atom bombs worked by nuclear fission—splitting the nucleus of a uranium or plutonium atom by striking its core with a neutron. The force looses more neutrons from the targeted atom, along with energy, and the chain reaction continues: more neutrons, more energy, more neutrons, more energy. In a nuclear power plant, this energy is controlled, heating water to spin a turbine that generates electricity. In a nuclear bomb, the energy is released. That’s what makes it a bomb.

Edward Teller, one of the Manhattan Project physicists, feared that the explosion could extinguish all earthly life. Once set off, he imagined, the chain reaction might extend into the nitrogen in the air, igniting the atmosphere. That didn’t happen, so three weeks after the Trinity test, the fission energy of 140 pounds of uranium and 14 pounds of plutonium were released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 140,000 civilians. A week hence, Imperial Japan surrendered and World War II ended. American GIs returned home to fill suburbs and inaugurate the Baby Boom. Then the Truman Doctrine initiated the Cold War, and the threat of planetary extinction by the Gadget’s progeny persisted for almost half a century more.

Along the way, the site of the Trinity test became a tourist attraction, albeit one tightly controlled by the U.S. military. A month before Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan met for the first time, my family drove down from Albuquerque, where we lived, to visit it. Sting released a single that year about “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy”; in its refrain he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too.” Nuclear war was a thought as common as the weather. This trip was a visit not to the past, but to the anxious present.

Established on July 9, 1945, White Sands Missile Range (formerly White Sands Proving Ground) is the largest military installation in the United States, covering 3,200 square miles.

The U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range, where the test site is located, grants access to visitors twice a year, on the first Saturday of April and October. To reach it from Alamogordo, to the south, visitors congregate at daybreak in the Tularosa High School athletic-field parking lot, and are led in an automobile caravan for the 145-mile round trip. “There are no service-station facilities on the missile range,” the Army warns. “Please make sure you have a full tank of gas.” The desert basin has been there for at least 2,000,000 years; it doesn’t care about the trivial needs of a species one-tenth that age.