Note: This story first appeared in the May-June 2010 issue of the Gypsy Journal.
Neon signs and electronic billboards may light up the night sky in Las Vegas these days, but back in the early 1950s something much brighter turned nighttime into day in the Nevada desert.
From 1951 through 1963, the government conducted a series of nuclear weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site, located just 65 miles north of Las Vegas. This was the height of the Cold War, and the experiments conducted there helped ensure world peace when humanity teetered on the brink of destruction. Locals and tourists alike used to gather on the roofs of Las Vegas casinos to watch the blasts at the Test Site.
Today, the Atomic Testing Museum tells the story of those days when schoolchildren hid under their desks during bomb drills, and people built backyard fallout shelters, waiting for the day when somebody “pushed the button.” Visitors to the museum can explore thirteen galleries that take you through the Atomic Age, with displays of nuclear test equipment, mockups of bombs, and profiles of the scientists who worked at the Nevada Test Site.
Any of us who lived during the Cold War will see things we remember in a display on the pop culture of the Atomic Age, including Geiger counters for the home, a child’s Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab, and bomb shaped salt and pepper shakers.
One of the most memorable parts of the tour was the Ground Zero Theater. Built like a concrete bunker used during the nuclear tests, the theater gives you the experience of watching a nuclear test just as the scientists and witnesses did back when the Nevada Test Site was in its heyday. First a bright light fills the screen, and seconds later the seats begin to vibrate as a blast of air simulates the explosion’s shock wave. Then a video presentation gives an overview of the experiments conducted at the Test Site, including interviews with scholars and people who worked there.
All through the museum, signs and interpretative displays explain the progression of nuclear testing, and the need for our involvement, to maintain the precarious balance of power that actually preserved peace during the Cold War.
Not all of the research conducted at the Nevada Test Site was aimed at building weapons of mass destruction. Much emphasis was put into finding ways in which nuclear power could help mankind, and on its impact on the world. For fifteen years, the Environmental Protection Agency studied the impact of radioactive fallout on the human food chain at a 36 acre experimental farm at the Nevada Test Site. Studies there examined how fallout affected farm grown vegetables, dairy animals, and beef cattle. The information obtained during these tests helped determine safeguard measures for the human food chain in the event of a nuclear war.
The Plowshare program, initiated in 1958, sought to develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosives in major engineering projects, such as building dams and canals. Later, NASA astronauts practiced lunar exploration on the rugged terrain created by the Plowshare experiments before Apollo space missions.
Other displays at the museum look into the distant past of the region, with exhibits on the native peoples who lived here long before the first Europeans set foot in the New World, and on the early Nevada pioneers who helped settle the land.
An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the Atomic Testing Museum is located on the Desert Research Institute campus, just east of the Las Vegas Strip, at 755 E. Flamingo Road. The parking lot will not accommodate RVs, so drive your tow vehicle or dinghy when you visit. The museum is open Monday – Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (702) 794-5161, or visit the museum’s website at www.atomictestingmuseum.org.
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Congratulations Jeanne Caverly, winner of our drawing for an audiobook of Crazy Days In Big Lake, the third book in my Big Lake mystery series. We had 103 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon.
Thought For The Day – The reason Santa is so jolly is because he knows where all the naughty girls live.