Trinity Site is the “Ground Zero” location of the first atomic bomb test in history, the successful culmination of the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb in World War II. At 5:29:45 AM on July 16, 1945, a 19-kiloton explosion changed the world forever. A 10-foot tall pyramid-shaped rock monument marks the spot where the bomb was held at the top of a 100-foot tall steel tower. Because the Trinity Site is located within White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, which is still an active military base, it is open to the public on only two days a year—the first Saturday in April and October. Cameras and bananas are permitted.
Some days before the first test of the bomb it was an open secret in Alamogordo, even among the wives and children of the Los Alamos scientists, that some particularly important and exciting event was in preparation. The test was referred to under the code name “Trinity.”
The main topic of conversation among the atomic scientists working at Los Alamos naturally turned on the question, “Will the ‘gadget’ ”—the word “bomb” was discreetly avoided—“go off or not?” The majority believed that the theoretical hypotheses would be proved right. But the possibility of failure had always to be taken into account.
On Thursday the 12th and Friday the 13th of July 1945 the components of the interior explosive mechanism of the experimental bomb left Los Alamos by the “back door,” along a secret road built during the war. They were transported from “Site S,” where they had been assembled, to the experimental area known as the Jornada del Muerto
(Death Tract) near the village of Oscuro (which means “dark”). Here, in the middle of the desert, a tall frame of iron scaffolding had been put up to hold the bomb.
On July 14 and 15 heavy thunderstorms, accompanied by great quantities of hail, broke over Los Alamos. The participants in the experiment, many of whom then learned for the first time the precise aim and object of the work they had been doing, were addressed by Hans Bethe, head of the theoretical Division. The audience then boarded buses camouflaged with paint and set off on the four hours journey to the experimental area.
By two o’clock in the morning all those taking part in the experiment were in their places. They were assembled in the Base Camp, some ten miles from Point Zero where there stood the high scaffolding on which the new, still untested weapon had been placed—the bomb on which they had been working for the last two years and had now finally brought to completion. They tried on the dark glasses with which they had been provided and smeared their faces, by artificial light, with anti-sunburn cream. It had been arranged that the “shot” should take place at 4 A.M.
, but the bad weather rendered a postponement necessary.
At the control point, slightly over five and one half miles from the scaffolding, J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves conferred about whether the test should be put off altogether. After consultation with the meteorological experts it was eventually decided to explode the experimental bomb at 5:30 A.M.
At ten minutes past five Oppenheimer’s deputy, the atomic physicist Samuel K. Allison, one of the twenty people in the control room, began to send out time signals. At about the same time Groves, who had by then left the control point and returned to the Base Camp, something over four miles further back, was giving the scientific personnel waiting at the Camp their last instructions. They were to put on their sunglasses and lie down on their faces with their heads turned away. For it was considered practically certain that anyone who tried to observe the flames with the naked eye would be blinded.
During the ensuing period of waiting, which seemed an eternity, hardly a word was spoken. Everyone was giving free play to his thoughts. But so far as those who have been asked can remember, these thoughts were not apocalyptic. Enrico Fermi, experimental-minded as ever, was holding scraps of paper, with which he meant to gauge the air pressure and thereby estimate the strength of the explosion the moment it occurred. O.R. Frisch was intent on memorizing the phenomenon as precisely as possible, without allowing either excitement or preconceived notion to interfere with his faculties of perception. Groves was wondering for the hundredth time whether he had taken every possible step to ensure rapid evacuation in the case of a disaster. Oppenheimer oscillated between fears that the experiment would fail and fears that it would succeed.
Then everything happened faster than it could be understood. No one saw the first flash of the atomic fire itself. It was only possible to see its dazzling white reflection in the sky and on the hills. Those who then ventured to turn their heads perceived a bright ball of flame, growing steadily larger and larger. “Good God, I believe that the long-haired boys have lost control!” a senior officer shouted. Carson Mark, one of the most brilliant members of the Theoretical Division actually thought—though his intelligence told him the thing was impossible—that the ball of fire would never stop growing till it had enveloped all heaven and earth. At that moment everyone forgot what he had intended to do.
Groves writes: “Some of the men in their excitement, having had three years to get ready for it, at the last minute forgot those welders helmets and stumbled out of the cars where they were sitting. They were distinctly blinded for two to three seconds. In that time they lost the view of what they had been waiting for over three years to see.”
People were transfixed with fright at the power of the explosion. Oppenheimer was clinging to one of the uprights in the control room. A passage from the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred epic of the Hindus, flashed into his mind:
If the radiance of a thousand suns
were to burst into the sky,
that would be like
the splendor of the Mighty One—
Yet, when the sinister and gigantic cloud rose up in the far distance over Point Zero, he was reminded of another line from the same source:
I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.
Sri Krishna, the Exalted One, lord of the fate of mortals, had uttered the phrase. But Oppenheimer was only a man, into whose hands a mighty, a far too mighty, instrument of power had been given.
It is a striking fact that none of those present reacted to the phenomenon as professionally as he had supposed he would. They all, even those—who constituted the majority—ordinarily without religious faith or even any inclination thereto, recounted their experiences in words derived from the linguistic fields of myth and theology. General Farrell, for example, notes: “The whole country was lighted by a searing light with an intensity many times that of the midday sun. Thirty seconds after the explosion came, first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.”
—excerpted, adapted and condensed from Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists
, by Robert Jungk