An interesting museum about the US atomic program.

Quick Stats

On July 16, 1945, the US created the very first man made atomic explosion. It took 27 months of rapid development to create the first atomic bomb. They named it the Trinity project. The pace of development was frantic as the US was worried the German Nazis would develop the atomic bomb first. Albert Einstein warned that advances in atomic science would lead to extremely powerful bombs.
The US initially had two different atomic bomb designs, the Fat Man and Little Boy. Shown here is an actual casing for a Fat Man bomb. Each bomb uses a different technique to make the Uranium or Plutonium go super critical. Just 1 month after their initial Trinity test, the US dropped two bombs on Japan. One Fat Man and one Little Boy. The initial testing was all done with the Fat Man design. When they dropped the Little Boy bomb on Hiroshima, they had never tested it beforehand and felt they didn’t have time to create another Fat Man. You can read more about the devastating impact these bombs had on Japan here:
Ever wonder what is in those nuclear waste drums you see in movies? Wonder no more. This is considered low level nuclear waste that contains contaminated tools and protective clothing.
B-53 Thermonuclear Bomb. At the time, this was the largest and most powerful atomic weapon the US had with a yield of 9 megatons. This bomb was considered a bunker buster as the shockwave from the explosion would cause bunkers to collapse. The fireball from this bomb would be over 5 Km in diameter and the heat from the explosion would be lethal to anybody within a 32 Km diameter. Any building within 5 Km would be destroyed with a 100% fatality rate to human life in the same area. If these weapons were ever used, the carnage would be unimaginable. The US built over 350 of these bombs.
The B-61 bomb shown above was developed by Los Alamos and tested in the area just outside Las Vegas. Designed to be small, lightweight and capable of being dropped from a high-speed aircraft. The B-61 is the longest serving nuclear warhead the United States has.
With the risk of nuclear war increasing, the US government started performing tests on residential buildings to see if people could survive a nuclear bomb attack. They would place dummies in the buildings, set off a bomb and see if you could survive in the basement (upstairs was demolished).
You probably recognize Geiger counters from TV or movies. They are used for detecting and measuring radiation that results from an atomic bomb. Fun facts about a nuclear explosion:
– Pressure exerted is over several million PSI (pounds per square inch)
– Temperatures exceed over 20 million degrees C (Surface of the sun is only 5,600C)
– The weapon and surrounding rock are vaporized
– The shockwave will register as an earthquake
Although the nuclear testing above ground created a spectacle that could even be seen from Las Vegas, it was quickly contaminating the environment with radiation. The US, UK and Soviet Union signed an agreement in 1963 that they would no longer conduct nuclear tests in the ocean, atmosphere or in space. This meant all nuclear testing was moved below ground. They would drill a large hole in the earth and the equipment seen in the above picture was carefully lowered into the hole. The bottom of this device would hold the nuclear weapon that was being tested, the top was fitted with numerous instruments that would record the performance of the explosion. The hole would then be filled with material that would prevent radioactive debris and gases from reaching the surface. Huge bundles of cables would transmit information from the sensors back up to the surface.
Another instrumentation pack used for monitoring underground nuclear explosions. The device was suspended from the spring on the top to help absorb some of the shock from the explosion. This particular device was deployed in a horizontal cave bunker that was used for testing. This instrument was recovered from the bunker in 2001. The US would perform tests on military equipment and even satellites so they could understand how they would perform when exposed to intense radiation.
Example of some of the equipment used to collect the data from the testing. A collection rack could contain up to 120 oscilloscopes.
Atomic energy can also be used for good and not just pulverizing your enemy. This is an example of nuclear powered rocket that would be used for missions to mars. This example proved it would be possible for this nuclear engine to operate for over 2 hours at full power.
Named after the Greek sun chariot God, Phoebus was one of the most powerful nuclear powered rockets that could produce over 250,000 pounds of thrust. Although nuclear rockets are efficient and powerful, they have never been used by humans for space powered flight (yet) as there is a risk of failure during launch. Having radioactive material rain down over Disneyland in Florida may not be the best scenario.
If you ever find yourself in Las Vegas and find science and technology history interesting, a trip to the Atomic Museum is certainly well worth the visit.


ted · April 7, 2023 at 6:46 pm

Scary stuff!!!

Zoe Brown · April 8, 2023 at 6:16 am

I’m glad the Atomic Museum in Vegas is open now! It’s a really interesting museum about the US atomic program. I learned a lot about it in just a few minutes!

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