Atomic Testing Museum: Las Vegas’ Contribution to the Atomic AgeAugust 31, 2011 No Comments
Before he retired, Dad was an industrial engineer for the Department of Defense. He’s a major science geek, and he has passed that love on to me. So when we saw an ad for the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, we knew we had to check it out.
About Nuclear Testing in Nevada
The atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan changed the course of warfare forever. The bombings brought a swift and decisive victory to Allied forces, but also generated a new worldwide interest in the use of atomic weapons. In 1949, former ally Russia successfully tested its first nuclear bomb. As George Orwell correctly predicted in a 1945 essay, the ongoing race for nuclear weapons soon led to the Cold War.
While previous American bomb tests were carried out in the South Pacific, by 1950 it was clear that the United States needed a test site closer to home. While many locations were considered, the Nevada desert was ultimately chosen due to its terrain, weather, and low population density. The first test at the Nevada Test Site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site, commenced on January 27, 1951. The site was just 65 miles from Las Vegas, and the ensuing mushroom clouds were easily visible from the city.
Almost overnight, Las Vegas ushered in the age of atomic tourism. Fueled by a series of press releases from the Chamber of Commerce, visitors from around the country descended on the city in droves to witness the mushroom clouds first hand. On April 22, 1952, 200 members of the media were invited to broadcast from Yucca Lake, just ten miles from the epicenter of a major blast. As the bomb exploded on televisions from coast to coast, the country was caught up in atomic fever.
Las Vegas adopted the moniker “Atomic City” and played up its bomb connections to the hilt. From Miss Atomic Bomb contests to drink specials and all-night bomb parties, the city reinvented itself as only Las Vegas can. The atomic bomb arguably had just as big an influence on developing Las Vegas’ reputation as a tourist destination as did the Mafia in the previous decade.
About the Atomic Testing Museum
Opened in 2005 just off the famous Las Vegas Strip, the Atomic Testing Museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum traces the history of atomic testing through a series of interactive and highly engaging displays and exhibits.
Many of the exhibits are dedicated to the Nevada Test Site, where atmospheric testing was conducted from 1951 through 1962, and underground testing continued until 1992. Some galleries focus on the site’s importance in Apollo astronaut training. Others focus on the people whose lives have been intertwined with the area, from early Native Americans to the workers who conducted the tests.
Other displays focus on Las Vegas as the Atomic City and on the American fascination with nuclear energy. On a personal note, one of the featured items is the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. According to my father, who used to play with one, the lab offered kids of the 1950s the opportunity to dose themselves with low levels of radiation! Who exactly thought this was a good idea? Of course, it does explain a lot…
Perhaps the most impressive and most poignant displays of all are the Ground Zero Theater and the exhibits that immediately follow. Inside the theater, a 10-minute presentation blends film and in-theater effects to put you in the middle of an atomic blast! Outside, a typical 1950s kitchen is filled with the survival gear that average Americans were told would protect them in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. An old TV runs public service announcements teaching kids to “duck and cover.” Apparently, American citizens were assured that even if a young boy was outside riding his bike, diving into a ditch when he saw the white flash of light would keep him safe.
Another poignant display is located at the end of the museum, just before the gift shop. A chunk of the Berlin Wall sits across from a metal I-beam that was part of the World Trade Center. In today’s uncertain world, the juxtaposition highlights how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.
Tips for Parents
The Atomic Testing Museum presents a fair and balanced look at nuclear power. Equal time is given to inventors and protestors, atomic tourists and local residents who worried about potential danger to their children. Films and interactive displays help draw in visitors of all ages.
The museum presents a great deal of historical data, making it a wonderful destination for students of history to spend the better part of a day. But the experience is self-guided, so those with younger children or less of a historical interest can skim over the details. Dad and I spent a couple of hours exploring, reading many of the signs but not going into extreme detail. A lighter experience could easily be accomplished in an hour or so.
Follow your kids’ lead and be prepared to answer questions. With so much to look at, there is no telling what might catch their eye!