The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

November 12, 2021

We visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque. It’s a museum that had formerly been located on Kirtland Air Force Base, southeast of Albuquerque, but closed on Sept. 11, 2001, and then temporarily relocated to Old Town Albuquerque before opening in a new facility in 2009. It’s a very impressive museum, with many historical exhibits, plenty of room for traveling exhibits, and a great collection of World War II- and Cold War-era aircraft and missiles.

The museum starts with a historical survey of nuclear research, paying homage to the men and women who discovered the incredible power – for constructive as well as destructive purposes – of splitting an atom. There’s a good bit of exhibit space devoted to the United States’ development of the first atomic bomb, including artifacts from the U.S. Army facilities in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the materiel for the test and actual bombs was created. A short film describing the training of the crews of the Enola Gay and Bockscar, the B-29s that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was really interesting; it had interviews with many of the members of the Enola Gay crew (conducted some years ago) in which they said they viewed the operations as helping to bring a quicker end to hostilities in the Pacific. In the summer of 1945, everyone in the United States and the country’s allies wanted the war to end.

A replica of “The Gadget,” the test atomic weapon that was detonated at the Trinity site in New Mexico (now part of the White Sands Missile Range between Alamogordo and Las Cruces). It was dropped from a 100-foot tower during the operation. The test detonation, and the remarkable destruction that it caused, prompted Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Las Alamos Labratory, to reflect on the phrase “Now I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds,” which is taken from Hindu scripture.
A replica of Little Boy, in front, which was the first atomic weapon deployed in warfare, and Fat Man. Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, from the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, killing about 70,000 people (30% of Hiroshima’s population) and destroying about 75% of the city’s buildings and roads. The B-29 Bockscar deployed Fat Man over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, killing about 35,000 people. Japan, facing an imminent invasion of the Japanese archipelago, the possibility of additional atomic bombings, and a Soviet intention to begin hostilities, announced its intention to surrender on August 15, and signed the official documents on September 2, 1945, bringing an end to World War II.

It’s not easy, but I think it’s necessary, to learn about all of the destruction caused by these atomic weapons. I was moved to see the atomic bomb replicas, realizing that the actual weapons killed many tens of thousands of civilians but also ended a war that Japan was willing to continue with perhaps many more casualties than even Little Boy and Fat Man caused. The idea of an Allied invasion of Japan’s islands, similar to the D-Day invasion of Europe, had, frankly, never even occurred to me – I had never thought about the fact that there had been plans to invade Japan that were developed because of the necessity to keep the Manhattan Project under wraps even to the majority of the U.S. military. Because Japan was running low on military resources, it’s easy to surmise that the planned invasion would have gone the way of the Allies, just as it’s easy to see the victory would have come at a horrific human cost as well.

This is one of the reasons we enjoy going to museums, I think: the information they display fill in a lot of gaps in knowledge that I didn’t even know we had.

The museum had many Cold War-era artifacts inside its building, including disarmed nuclear missiles (some large, some small) that were placed in readiness in Europe in the years following World War II.

“Writing a Wrong”

There was also a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution that examined the history of the incarceration of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1945. “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II” displayed many artifacts from some of the 10 incarceration camps and many more smaller facilities in which 75,000 Japanese Americans were detained from March 1942 to March 1946. The families had to sell nearly everything they owned in their households and businesses, and carried only what they could take with them to the camps. Some decades later, the U.S. Congress recognized that the civil rights of these people had been violated and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which formally apologized, and made restitution, to those who had been incarcerated. Some of the camps, which were all west of the Mississippi River, have been developed into U.S. national historic sites, and I believe an effort is underway to get Camp Amache, which was located in far southeastern Colorado near the Kansas border, national historic site status as well. I don’t remember when I first learned about the incarceration camps, but I do know it was well after I’d graduated from high school. It’s a dark period in American history, to me, and I think it needs all of the light that can possibly be shone on it.

World War II and Cold War Aircraft

The exterior grounds of the Nuclear Museum feature seven aircraft developed to deliver nuclear devices (or protect those that did), the sail from the nuclear submarine James K. Polk, and a large variety of disarmed nuclear missiles and rockets. I thought it was interesting that many of these photos have contrails in their backgrounds from aircraft originating from Kirtland Air Force Base.

A B-29 Superfortress, which was the model of bomber used to drop nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. A replica of the 100-foot tower used to test “The Gadget” at the Trinity test site in New Mexico (see above) is at left.

A B-52 Stratofortress on display. This particular bomber was shielded as protection from possible radioactive activity because of its proximity to nuclear weapons. First flying in 1952, a total of 744 B-52s were produced by Boeing until 1962. About 50 are still in service.
I was unfamiliar with this bomber. It’s a B-47 Stratojet, and it was developed to deliver nuclear weapons over the Soviet Union. They had a wingspan of 116 feet and had a top speed of 607 mph (for comparison, a B-29, powered by propellers rather than a jet, had a wingspan of 141 feet and had a top speed of 357 mph). More than 2,000 were produced beginning in 1947, and they were retired by 1977.

I was very happy to see examples of two of my favorite Cold War-era aircraft: the F-105 Thunderchief and the Soviet MiG-21 (they’re my favorites for no better reason than I just think they look awfully darned cool).

I managed to cut off the inlet cone on the front of this MiG-21 when taking the photo on my iPhone, which is unfortunate. The MiG-21 was developed by the Soviet Union’s Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau in 1955 and is the most-produced supersonic jet in military history; almost 11,500 were built between 1959 and 1985 for more than 60 countries on four continents. This particular one has a B-29 on its six but it’s probably okay because the MiG is capable of a top speed of 1,300 mph.
A total of 833 F-105s were produced by Republic Aircraft from 1955-1964, and the last one flew in 1984. It was the primary bombing aircraft of the early years of the Vietnam War. This particular aircraft originated service at Spangdahlem Air Base in West Germany in 1962. That’s the sail of the U.S.S. James K. Polk submarine, launched as a ballistic missile submarine in May 1965 and decommissioned in July 1999, stealthily emerging from the sands of the New Mexico desert to the left of the F-105, an A-7 Corsair II in the immediate background, and the building for the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History is behind the Corsair.

Much of the museum is devoted to the social impacts of living in a world protected and powered, and threatened by, nuclear power: bomb shelters, advances in nuclear medicine, and nuclear power as a source of sustainable energy.

We spent about four hours at the museum, and they were well spent. I learned much more about subjects and events that I was at least aware of, and I learned plenty more about events I knew nothing about. We talked a lot about the enormous amount of money spent on all of these weapons, and of the lives lost in combat as well as in maintaining them, but we recognize and appreciate that they were built to ensure that Little Boy and Fat Man have been the only nuclear weapons used in war.

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