The nuclear age of the mid-20th century is remembered as both a time of peril and promise. Enrico Fermi created the first sustained fission reaction using an atomic pile at the University of Chicago in 1942, ushering in the atomic age. And although the Cold War is over and nuclear energy has not become the panacea its early supporters promised, there are signs that nuclear energy may once again become a key alternative fuel of the future. But whether being used in weaponry, power plants, or in deep space, nuclear energy has played an important role in modern history. Here are some of the top tourist sites and museums in the United States that make the Atomic Age come alive.
5. Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Museum Site
Unlike some other sites on this list that are located in or near major cities, this site is well off the beaten path, but definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area. Located in eastern North Dakota about an hour outside Fargo, the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Museum opened in 2009. The last active duty alert finished here on July 17, 1997, and the museum gives visitors a great look at what “life on alert” was like. The coffee’s still on, the chow hall menu is still posted, and the entire above- and belowground facility look as if it were just taken off of alert status yesterday. The site consists of the November-33 Launch Facility, and the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility; each complex controlled several Minuteman ICBM missiles as part of the U.S. nuclear deterrence force. The underground portion of the launch center was also designed to be autonomous, and could be sealed off to survive a near-nuclear strike from above.
While this site is no longer active, here’s a thought worth pondering — as of 2014, approximately 450 Minuteman III nuclear-tipped missiles remain deployed across the western United States. The missiles are expected to remain a vital part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal through at least 2030.
4. White Sands Missile Range Museum
Located on an active U.S. Army missile range a short drive off of U.S. Route 70 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces, New Mexico, the White Sands Missile Range Museum hosts a fine collection of exhibits from the early atomic era. Memorabilia from the historic Manhattan Project is on display here, along with a fascinating collection of rockets and missiles tested through the years at White Sands. Don’t miss the samples of “trinitite,” or glassy residue from fused sand at the first atomic bomb test site. And speaking of that site, just to the north of White Sands sits Trinity Site, where scientists detonated the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. Unfortunately, Trinity Site is only open to guided tours twice a year.
3. Yuma Proving Ground Museum
This site (dubbed YPG) located just outside Yuma, Arizona, continues to provide essential training for military personnel and testing for equipment; it’s especially helpful that the desert Southwest climate approximates that of the Middle East. The Yuma Proving Ground Heritage Center follows the history of military testing at the site, from the World War II era onward. And although most of the tests here were conventional, the atomic age did make its way to the Yuma Proving Ground on occasion as well. Guns from the High Altitude Research Project (HARP) designed to lob atomic shells or even satellites, were tested here. Also, keep an eye out for an enormous orange truck on the museum grounds. Tested at the site in the 1960s, the experimental truck was intended to be the main engine for a proposed “overland train,” powered by a plutonium power cell similar to what NASA uses for deep space exploration vehicles. Fortunately, those plans never came to fruition.
2. Albuquerque Museum of Nuclear Science and History
Opened at its current location in 2009 just outside of Kirtland Air Force Base, the Albuquerque Museum of Nuclear Science and History houses a fine collection of all things nuclear and atomic, including weapons, the history of nuclear power production, and atomic era propaganda and paraphernalia. Among the items on display are casings of Little Boy and Fat Man, the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.
But beyond just warehousing and displaying nuclear weaponry and delivery systems, the museum delves into the history of nuclear energy and our relationship to it, from dubious “health products” such as the radium-filled “Revigorator” marketed in the 1920s, to the comic book and sci-fi motion picture culture of the 1950s that embraced all things atomic. The legacy of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War is also traced here, as well as modern uses for radiation, both routine and bizarre. And don’t miss the full-scale fallout shelter, or the cut-away models demonstrating nuclear waste transportation.
1. National Atomic Testing Museum
If you’re ever in Las Vegas for business or pleasure, this museum is well worth a visit. Located in a suburb of Las Vegas, the National Atomic Testing Museum maintains a collection of more than 12,000 individual artifacts documenting the development of the first atomic bomb. Permanent exhibits at the museum outline the development of the atomic bomb and atmospheric and underground testing conducted extensively at the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas in the 1950s and ’60s. Opened in 2005, the museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. The museum also houses an extensive collection of Geiger counters, as well as an unforgettable “Ground Zero Theater,” which simulates the experience of witnessing an atomic blast firsthand. The U.S. Department of Energy also conducts tours to the Nevada National Security Site once a month, which stops at the T-1 training area and the famous “Apple II Houses” built to study the effects of atomic blasts on structures.
One More: Bradbury Museum at Los Alamos
Located on the outskirts of Santa Fe, the Bradbury Science Museum is the public outreach facility for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The museum features full-sized mockups of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as declassified documents from the Manhattan Project. The museum also features over 40 interactive exhibits and highlights the development of supercomputer technology at Los Alamos, as well as the role that nuclear energy and plutonium production has played in the U.S. space program.