A Bomb in the Desert

Seventy-five years ago, America set off the world’s first nuclear explosion.

The obelisk in the New Mexico desert that marks the location of the first nuclear detonation. (Nina Berman/Noor)

All deserts are not alike. The Sahara’s romantic dunes form the great sand sea of desert archetype. The Sonoran is monumental, with its majestic saguaros and towering sandstone buttes. Though both are hot, dry, and unforgiving, these deserts are still compatible with human affairs, among them bearing witness to sublime beauty.

But others are alien and unwelcoming. Within the Chihuahuan Desert in south-central New Mexico, an ancient tectonic drift formed the Tularosa Basin. At its south edge, during the last ice age, gypsum runoff created a lake, which thaw later evaporated into White Sands, an albino desert. To the north, a barren waste of lava field stretches across 150 square miles of the basin—malpaís in Spanish, because the land itself is bad. Nearby, another, smaller flow of sharp, igneous darkness called the Carrizozo Malpais streaks across the earth like a scar.

Few have ever tried to live on this land. The Spanish conquistadors who crossed it in the 16th century called the passage and the land it traverses jornada del muerto, or “journey of the dead man.” But some people did settle here, including Franz Schmidt, a German immigrant who took up residence west of the Carrizozo Malpais a few years before the fountain pen was invented. Decades later, the United States government requisitioned the home Schmidt built and its surrounding land, a small nothing amid a vaster emptiness.

There, 75 years ago this morning, humankind exploded the first nuclear weapon, a cable-encrusted steel sphere nicknamed “the Gadget.” The site took on the code name of the detonation, Trinity, which its architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, had chosen, inspired by a John Donne holy sonnet: Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free.

The first atom bombs worked by nuclear fission—splitting the nucleus of a uranium or plutonium atom by striking its core with a neutron. The force looses more neutrons from the targeted atom, along with energy, and the chain reaction continues: more neutrons, more energy, more neutrons, more energy. In a nuclear power plant, this energy is controlled, heating water to spin a turbine that generates electricity. In a nuclear bomb, the energy is released. That’s what makes it a bomb.

Edward Teller, one of the Manhattan Project physicists, feared that the explosion could extinguish all earthly life. Once set off, he imagined, the chain reaction might extend into the nitrogen in the air, igniting the atmosphere. That didn’t happen, so three weeks after the Trinity test, the fission energy of 140 pounds of uranium and 14 pounds of plutonium were released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 140,000 civilians. A week hence, Imperial Japan surrendered and World War II ended. American GIs returned home to fill suburbs and inaugurate the Baby Boom. Then the Truman Doctrine initiated the Cold War, and the threat of planetary extinction by the Gadget’s progeny persisted for almost half a century more.

Along the way, the site of the Trinity test became a tourist attraction, albeit one tightly controlled by the U.S. military. A month before Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan met for the first time, my family drove down from Albuquerque, where we lived, to visit it. Sting released a single that year about “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy”; in its refrain he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too.” Nuclear war was a thought as common as the weather. This trip was a visit not to the past, but to the anxious present.

Established on July 9, 1945, White Sands Missile Range (formerly White Sands Proving Ground) is the largest military installation in the United States, covering 3,200 square miles. (Nina Berman/Noor)

The U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range, where the test site is located, grants access to visitors twice a year, on the first Saturday of April and October. To reach it from Alamogordo, to the south, visitors congregate at daybreak in the Tularosa High School athletic-field parking lot, and are led in an automobile caravan for the 145-mile round trip. “There are no service-station facilities on the missile range,” the Army warns. “Please make sure you have a full tank of gas.” The desert basin has been there for at least 2,000,000 years; it doesn’t care about the trivial needs of a species one-tenth that age.

On the hot, boring drive, I read the deadpan notices the Army provided to Trinity Site visitors. Radiation is dangerous for two reasons: first because it exudes deadly energy, and second because it does so for a very long time. Absorbed doses of nuclear energy are measured in millirems. A year of (cathode-ray-tube) television watching, the Army’s pamphlet told me, results in about one millirem of exposure per year. A cross-country flight doles out about two millirems, and a chest X-ray six millirems. But just to live on Earth is to be irradiated. “Cosmic rays from space” (the Army actually used those words) impose 25 to 50 millirems or so of exposure each year, depending on your elevation. The sun that warms you, the air you breathe, and the food and water you drink is responsible for some 240 millirems of annual radiation.

A visit to Trinity Site, the Army reassured, would result in about half a millirem an hour, making a visit the equivalent of a few years of television-watching. A starter-set for plutonium exposure. That was a comfort, I guess.

The site itself was not comforting. In the old Schmidt ranch house in whose master bedroom the Gadget was built, a sign hangs from a bare light bulb: Plutonium Assembly Room. Ground zero is marked by a 12-foot obelisk with an inset plaque that reads Where the World’s First Nuclear Device Was Exploded on July 16, 1945. The monument is fashioned of barbed lava-rock shards from the malpaís. It is hideous and inhuman, the perfect reliquary for this rest stop on death’s highway.

The force of the explosion lifted sand from the desert floor and pieces of steel from the bomb and its detonating support. Then heat from the blast melted these bits into glass, which rained down across the flat. The resulting residue is light green in color, and its glassy surface glints amid the dull dust. It’s known as Trinitite, a name that tames the bomb’s chaos into a docile collector’s mineral. You can buy souvenirs at Trinity, and breakfast burritos, too. But removing the Trinitite is theft of government property.

A portion of ground zero had been covered in a low shelter with glass windows, the Army’s attempt to preserve a swath of detritus from the explosion. The windows have long since dusted over into opacity, but 35 years ago I could still look through their haze. Chunks of Trinitite winked back at me. It seemed fake and overwrought, as if made up for a comic book: green rocks that glow radioactive. But the whole affair was too ordinary to be fictional. I moved along, making room for the other people from my caravan to shuffle past, their sneakers compressing the xeric shrubs underfoot.

Those who don’t know the region perceive the American desert Southwest as a homogeneous place. But just as the Saharan Desert is neither the Sonoran nor the Chihuahuan, so Arizona is not New Mexico. And New Mexico is not Texas, or Utah, or California. Far fewer people live there, for one, in part because it is so desolate and in part because that desolation was amplified by decades of secret government experimentation, carried out across thousands of square miles of impenetrable land. For another, the state is politically distinctive. The Spanish conquistadors who carried out their jornadas del muerto established a truly Hispanic progeny, a distinction of lineage its elites sometimes lord over the minority Chicano and Latino populations. From the conquistadors to the rocketeers, Europeans displaced dozens of indigenous peoples: tribes of the Apache, the Navajo Nation, Puebloans. To speak of “brown people” here is to elide a millennium of sorrows.

Not that others have been spared suffering. New Mexico often ranks 49th on measures such as children’s poverty, K-12 education, and violent crime. Those lows contrast starkly with the state’s military and scientific accomplishments. Los Alamos National Lab, where Oppenheimer ran the Trinity project, continues to manage federal defense and nuclear-weapons efforts. NASA’s White Sands Test Facility tests rocket-propulsion systems and other space-flight paraphernalia. The Very Large Array radio-astronomy lab stretches across the plains near the White Sands Missile Range. Sunspot, a world-class solar observatory, looks down the Tularosa Basin from a peak to its east. Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft here, but then moved away to be closer to home; later, Virgin Galactic moved in, also to be closer to home.

Maybe science just thrives here better than people do. Barren deserts are perfect places to listen to the stars in search of extraterrestrials, or to hide (maybe) evidence of their arrival, or to lure German scientists to jump-start American rocketry, or to cache nuclear warheads in hollowed-out mountains, or to bury radioactive waste in a deep geological repository meant to last 10,000 years.

Though desolate, the desert basin wasn’t unoccupied that morning 75 years ago, and an explosion of Trinity’s magnitude can’t be contained to one site. The Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium advocates for affected locals, who didn’t choose to be subjected to the blast and its fallout as Oppenheimer, Teller, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, and others had. A local man, who was an 11-year-old boy at the time of the test, recalled seeing a very big flash of light while filling his father’s truck radiator. “I thought The world is coming to an end,” he recounted, writing by hand on loose-leaf paper 70 years later. Black ash covered houses miles away and inundated cisterns via rainwater. Downwinders claim cancer rates three to eight times higher in nearby counties compared with the national average. For years, they have sought inclusion in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a 1990 law that provides remunerations to people exposed in certain nuclear-weapons tests—though not this one. But a whole lifetime has now passed since Trinity, and the surviving downwinders are fewer and fewer, for reasons more numerous than cancer.

This year, White Sands Missile Range canceled its April tour of Trinity Site, because of the coronavirus pandemic. New Mexico has been much less afflicted by the disease than Arizona (though, yet again, the Navajo Nation has suffered most). But crowds are still risky, even in the empty desert. Marking the diamond anniversary of the A-bomb while locked down from the novel coronavirus offers an elegiac historical inversion. As I write this, COVID-19 deaths in America near 140,000, a karmic mirror of the body count at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Pondering that forthcoming cost just after the Trinity detonation, Oppenheimer recalled a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The line has become so famous as Oppenheimer’s that his utterance of it has all but replaced actual readings of the excerpt, and maybe the whole Gita. In that passage, Krishna has just revealed one of his forms, Vishnu, the god who keeps the world together, as a mass of blazing tongues and mouths that scorch the whole of the universe. It’s a reasonable vision for a spiritual mind to have summoned amid the shock wave of the first nuclear blast.

Krishna continues: “I am Time, the source of the destruction that annihilates worlds.” Sanskritists sometimes interpret time (काल) as death, because of Hinduism’s cyclical understanding of temporality: Death is not an end, but the doorway to a new birth. The blinding brightness of the Trinity test made Oppenheimer hope that, like the radiance of Vishnu, the weapon’s use might prevent a worse unraveling, and inaugurate a new beginning.

Some have theorized that the bomb ultimately did save more lives than it took, because the war would have continued, perhaps interminably, without its intervention. Conjuring such a rationalization is harder for today’s affliction. Seventy-five years ago, U.S. government investment rallied scientific ingenuity to produce rapid, historic results. That past seems lost. Instead, the pandemic feels more like a low-altitude version of Teller’s fear, but this time both unforeseen and realized: a chain reaction of viruses rather than neutrons, cascading uncontrolled in the atmosphere.

Maybe that’s because the 20th century, replete with singular inventions such as the atomic bomb, acclimated us to definitive ends, as if a Victory Over Corona Day might arrive as V-J Day did. That time is gone, a victim of Vishnu. Better to let memory of its death conjure the long slog of the Cold War, the other door the nuclear test opened; or the dry trudge of the jornada del muerto; or the New Mexican struggle between high technology and basic comforts. Like the desert, the future is difficult to traverse, even though it persists with or without our intervention.