Unfamiliar Land

Atomic Tourism in 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 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 nuclear missile silo is just 20 minutes from the airport. It’s the only one of its kind that’s preserved in (nearly) its original state. Retired 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 earthquakes following a nearby nuclear blast. The inside of the silo carries a silence and sense of weight to it. Servicemen stationed there would have known there was little chance of survival in the retaliatory strike that would likely follow a launch. It’s hard not to compare the feeling to being inside your own tomb.

At the end of the tour you can buy postcards and t-shirts, old Civil Defense emergency supplies, even components torn out from other decommissioned missile silos. On my return flight, TSA did not 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, and many types that I’d never seen before.

Although you could spend an entire day at the museum itself, 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 dry 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 declared obsolete. This is the largest facility of its kind, and the rows of aircraft seem to stretch on to the horizon as you drive past them. Keep an eye out for some oddities you might not expect, such as a fleet of Norwegian Air Force cargo planes (America’s NATO partners also use this base), or 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. That 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 MP officer before it can enter. Outside the gate there’s an odd mix of news reporters, protestors, 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 here seemed to come from all over the country, and they were all eager to see ground zero. Some wore dust masks, even though there was no danger from radiation (background 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 device that might emit electromagnetic radiation. Except during maintenance the array is always collecting data, and even the smallest amount of EM interference can 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. Much 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. Everyone working there seems a little quirky, but there’s no doubt that they’re extremely passionate about the science 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.

The history of Biosphere 2 is wild. The project was conceived by oil baron billionaire Ed Bass in 1984. With nuclear war and climate change threatening to end life on earth, Biosphere 2 was meant to research closed ecosystem technology that could lead to permanent colonies on Mars or the Moon… and profit from it. In its first mission, eight researchers lived inside the complex for two years. The experiment succeeded, though just barely. The team faced problems with crop yields, an unexpected and dangerous drop in oxygen, and in-fighting after they split into two factions with different goals for the scientific outcome of the mission.

The second mission did not even make it that far. As costs increased into the hundreds of millions, Ed Bass hired Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon) 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 history behind it.

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.

# Posted on March 16, 2019 by Marc Charbonneau.