Atomic Road Trip Through America’s Southwest
Arizona & New Mexico, USA
Every year in April there’s a single day when you can visit two important scientific sites in New Mexico. On the first Saturday of the month Trinity Site, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, and the Very Large Array radio astronomy observatory are both open to the public. A few years ago I decided to take a weeklong road trip and see them both. Along the way I explored the Arizona and New Mexico desert, including a Titan II missile silo, mothballed military aircraft, a research facility built for the end of the world, and so much more.
I started my trip by flying into Tucson, AZ. Hotels near the airport are cheap, for a reason – they’re directly under the flight path of National Guard F-16 and A-10 training flights coming and going every 20 minutes.
My first stop was the Titan Missile Museum. This decommissioned ballistic nuclear missile silo is just 20 minutes from the airport. It’s the only one of its kind that’s been preserved as a museum in its original state. Retired Air Force veterans lead tours down underground into the crew area, launch center, and past the Titan II missile itself. Each section is built from concrete and steel that rests on massive springs, designed to protect the silo from the shock waves that follow a nuclear blast.
The inside of the silo carries a silence and weight to it, like being inside your own tomb. Servicemen stationed here would have known there was little chance of survival in the retaliatory strike that would have followed a launch against the Soviet Union.
At the end of the tour you can buy postcards and t-shirts, old Civil Defense emergency supplies, even real components torn out from other decommissioned nuclear missile silos. On my return flight, TSA didn’t know what to make of my souvenir blast door control panel.
Next in Tucson was the Pima Air & Space Museum. There are over 300 historically significant military and civilian planes, including an SR-71 Blackbird, NASA research aircraft, and a former Air Force One from the Kennedy administration. There are aircraft from all eras here, including many that I’d never seen before.
You could easily spend an entire day at the museum itself, but the real gem at Pima is a guided tour of the nearby 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, also known as “The Boneyard.”
The Boneyard is an active Air Force base; sprawling desert land where decommissioned and out-of-service aircraft are stored indefinitely. There are all kinds of aircraft from all branches of the military, from single-engine training planes to massive B-52 bombers. They’re kept here until they’re either put back into service, used for parts, or finally declared obsolete. This is the largest facility of its kind, and the rows of aircraft seem to stretch on to the horizon. There are oddities you might not expect, such as a fleet of Norwegian Air Force cargo planes (America’s NATO partners also use this base), and a modified 747 equipped with an experimental missile destroying laser that was part of Reagan’s “Star Wars” program.
After exploring Tucson for the day, it was time to drive east to New Mexico. My next stop was Trinity Site and the Very Large Array.
I arrived at Trinity Site an hour early the next morning. It turned out to be a good idea, the line of cars stretched out miles from the main gate. Atomic Tourism seemed to have caught on in America’s consciousness that day. Trinity Site is located inside White Sands Missile Range, and each car is screened by a military police officer before it can enter.
Outside the gate there’s an odd mix of reporters, protestors who believe the atomic tests continue to cause cancer in nearby towns, and vendors selling souvenirs and trinitite. Trinitite (the green glass made of sand fused in a nuclear explosion) is illegal to collect in White Sands Missile Range, but not illegal to sell outside the base.
Visitors seemed to come from all over the country, and they were all eager to see ground zero. Some wore protective respirators, even though there was no real danger there (background radiation levels are higher than normal, although a visit to Trinity Site is still less radiation than you’d receive over an entire day elsewhere). At the Trinity Site monument people lined up to take selfies and group shots. A replica “Fat Man” nuclear bomb sat on a flatbed truck, a reminder of how the Trinity detonation altered the course of the world.
The Very Large Array radio telescope is a two hour drive from Trinity Site. It’s also a working facility, although security here isn’t as strict as White Sands. As you enter you’re warned to turn off your cell phone and any other device that might emit electromagnetic radiation. Unless it’s undergoing maintenance or being reconfigured the array is collecting data day and night, and even the smallest amount of EM interference will disrupt its work.
The first thing you notice when you enter are the massive radio dishes spread miles apart across the desert. There are 27 in total, each one sitting on railroad tracks that allow the configuration of the array to change depending on the resolution that’s needed. As I waited for the tour to begin, I attended a lecture from a Russian researcher about the history and science of radio astronomy. A lot of it seemed to go over the heads of the audience.
The tour takes you past the radio dishes, and through the control rooms and laboratories. The guide explains the history of the VLA, how it operates, the type of work and discoveries that have been made using the array, and what’s in store for the future. The science staff are all unabashedly nerdy, but despite their quirks there’s no doubting their passion about the work they’re doing.
That afternoon I headed west back towards Tucson, although my trip wasn’t over yet. I stayed the night at the Wigwam Motel. It’s run-down, and maybe slightly racist, but it felt like an authentic slice of old Route 66 Americana.
The next day I stopped at Meteor Crater in Northern Arizona. This impact crater is over 50,000 years old, although little has changed in that time. Paying admission gets you a view of the crater and entry to a small space museum that includes an Apollo test capsule on display — astronauts used the crater as a training ground in the 1960s and 70s to prepare for trips to the Moon.
There was one more stop on my list, and it turned out to be one of my favorites. Just north of Tucson is the Biosphere 2 research facility, a massive complex built to house an entire self-contained ecosystem and research staff.
If Biosphere 2 had been the imagination of a science fiction writer, it wouldn’t have been nearly as strange as real life. The project was conceived by oil baron billionaire Ed Bass in the 1980s during the Cold War. With the possibility of nuclear attack and climate change threatening to end life on earth, Ed Bass thought the days of humanity surviving on Earth were near the end. Biosphere 2 was meant to develop closed ecosystem technology that could be used to build permanent colonies on Mars or the Moon… and profit from the research.
In its first mission, eight researchers lived inside the complex for two years. The experiment succeeded, though just barely. Early on the team faced problems with crop yields and were forced to restrict their caloric intake. The amount of oxygen in the domes dropped to dangerous levels, an unexpected byproduct of bacteria feeding off of organic matter in the soil. By the end of the mission the health of the researchers was at serious risk, and in-fighting had split the team into two groups who refused to talk to each other.
The second mission was even more of a disaster. As the project’s cost overruns ran into the hundreds of millions, Ed Bass hired Steve Bannon (yes, the same Steve Bannon who would become famous during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign) to bring Biosphere 2 back under budget. With Bannon as CEO, tension between researchers and management increased until reaching a boiling point in 1994. Ed Bass, along with other investors, filed a restraining order and had federal marshals forcibly take control of the complex. Fearing for the safety of the scientists still locked inside, two members of the first mission secretly opened the airlock door, ending the experiment. The ownership company dissolved shortly after.
“I considered the Biosphere to be in an emergency state. I still do. I made a conscious decision to terminate the experiment… In no way was it sabotage. It was my responsibility.” —Abigail Alling, “Biospherian”
Today, Biosphere 2 is owned by the University of Arizona. It’s no longer a closed system, although the complex is still used for research into ecology and climate change. Public tours are offered that take you through the greenhouses, underground tunnels and ocean environment. My guide was not shy about sharing details from its past. It’s an amazing facility, and even more so after you’ve heard the stories behind its history.
There’s a lot more I haven’t covered here. During my weeklong trip I saw Indigenous cliff dwellings, visited the Petrified Forest National Park, camped on BLM land and watched the sun set over the desert, hiked an abandoned section of Route 66, and (of course) stopped to see the roadside attraction The Thing.
The American Southwest is a wonderful place.