White Sands National Park

White Sands National Park

White Sands and The Atomic Bomb

Shaka Guide



All right, we've made it back to the interdunal area, which means we're getting close to the exit.

Now, there aren't any more planned tour stops, but if you'd like to make another stop, by all means, go for it. All you gotta do is pause the audio.

As you've explored today, perhaps you've seen or heard a fighter jet or two flying a training mission up in the sky.

Well, we've got Holloman Air Force Base to our left, and nearly surrounding the park, we've got the White Sands Missile Range.

So, how exactly did a national park end up between two military installations? Well, the park was here first. 

Historical Background

Like I said before, White Sands National Monument was established in 1933, but the times were a-changin'. And not exactly for the better.

World War II began less than a decade later, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.

The United States avoided the conflict until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Within months, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, right next to the monument.

Soldiers were even allowed to practice tank maneuvers within the park's borders. 

Whoa. And today, the Bombing and Gunnery Range is the Air Force Base. The military was also allowed to test missiles both outside and inside the park boundaries.

Something that still happens today. Don't worry, if they were testing missiles right now, then the park would be closed.

But as you may know, there was one test here that changed the destiny of mankind forever. 

In 1938, scientists in Nazi Germany had successfully split an atom. And if they could figure out how to sustain a chain reaction of splitting atom after atom after atom, the energy released would be immense. A bomb with that amount of power is in the wrong hands. 

An atomic bomb. So in the summer of 1942, the United States started its own program to build a bomb first, codenamed the Manhattan Project.

The program was led by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, and under his supervision, the Manhattan Project successfully replicated and sustained an atomic chain reaction. 

The Americans were on their way to building an atomic bomb. Members of the project worked in several different locations across the country, but the bomb was designed and built in Los Alamos, in northern New Mexico, near Santa Fe.

Then, in July 1945, the military established White Sands Proving Grounds, what is today known as the White Sands Missile Range. 

The Trinity Test

And just one week later, on July 16th, it was time to test the bomb.

Nicknamed Gadget, the world's first atomic bomb was fixed on top of a 100-foot steel tower, about 60 miles north of where we are right now, in a spot Oppenheimer nicknamed the Trinity Site.

Members of the Manhattan Project stood over five miles away in wooden shelters, watching with anticipation. 

And then, at 5.30 a.m., in the dark desert of White Sands, the bomb detonated, creating a 1,200-foot crater, and a fiery mushroom cloud ascended 38,000 feet into the air.

The test was a success. As Oppenheimer later recalled, some people cheered while others cried.

The Impact of the Atomic Bomb

The world would never be the same. And on August 6th, just three weeks after the test at the Trinity Site, the world's second atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

Three days later, another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. 

The Japanese surrendered. After six years of fighting and over 50 million deaths, World War II was over.

While the end of the war was cause for celebration, the atomic bomb led to hundreds of thousands of casualties in Japan and left a permanent scar on humankind.

Reflection and Conclusion

A lot has already been said about the atomic bomb, and about the moral responsibilities of scientists like Oppenheimer.

But for now, let's just take a moment to think about the enormous amount of change White Sands has seen.

Think about the footprints of those early humans and the primitive weapons those people used to hunt. 

Then think about the bomb. This place has witnessed such a daunting amount of change, made by both Mother Nature and by man.

What it sees next, well, I guess is up to us.

But if we want the next change to be a good one, maybe we ought to heed the words of Oppenheimer himself, who spent the years after World War II advocating for peace.

When we deny the evil within ourselves, we dehumanize ourselves, and we deprive ourselves not only of our own destiny but of any possibility of dealing with the evil of others. What do you think?

Ready to take the tour? Check out Shaka Guide's White Sands National Park Tour!

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