Los Alamos – The Top Secret Town

las alamos main gateOn a (relatively) warm day, we hopped the motorcycle and headed for the historic town of Los Alamos, NM. A secretive town during the war-time Manhattan Project, it still seems relatively inaccessible with only one main winding mountain road passing to and through the town. The main gate stands as reminder of its top-secret history.

During that time period, the town was literally nowhere on the map. Mail and supplies were shipped to a PO box address, received in Santa Fe, and transferred up in tightly controlled transports. The birth certificates of babies born on the base during that time noted place of birth as “Post Office Box 1663”. No one was allowed to disclose their working location and communications were screened and censored.

The fascinating history of this area and the birth of the atomic bomb is described in the free Bradbury Science Museum in downtown Los Alamos. (I thought it was named for Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite authors! But, no, it was named for Norris Bradbury, Los Alamos National Laboratories second Director.) The museum isn’t particularly large, but it is information dense with videos, information displays and scale models.

This museum completed a triptych of atomic energy museums for me:  American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge Tennessee, Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, and the Bradbury Museum. Each shares the story of the Atomic Age from different geographic perspectives, telling their local story.

The Atom Bomb story has two aspects that strike me. First, it is so apparent that the entire country pulled together and sacrificed together during the Manhattan Project era to accomplish a seemingly-impossible goal. Our country is so divided today – does it take a common enemy and threat to our survival for us to pull together as a society toward a common objective? The last time we were really united was after the tragedy of 9/11. That national fervor didn’t last and we find ourselves as divided as we ever have been. It saddens me.

The other aspect that saddens me is the damage that we did to ourselves as we developed atomic bomb capability. Literally thousands of our own people have sickened and died from radiation exposure due to mining, research, bomb building and testing activities. Most of the damage didn’t show up until many years later in the form of cancers and other illnesses. Nuclear test sites are still contaminated by fallout –  still affecting people and the environment.

Was it all worth it? Having “The Bomb” seems to have prevented further World Wars. Dissenting countries are reluctant to deploy their big/bad weapon when the US is sitting poised with a bigger/badder one.  Globally, governments are working toward nuclear disarmament, which is positive. The museums document our scientists’ monumental accomplishment, but also highlight how terribly destructive the Bomb is.

I certainly pray that this horrible weapon is never, ever used again.


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