Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ode to the Atomic Testing Museum*

I few years ago I took a trip to The Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. It's a branch of the Smithsonian and easily your best use of time and money in Vegas.

I won't go into the entire rehash of that trip, but it is a really really cool museum. The only problem I had with it was this weird cheerleadery vibe it gave off. There were a couple movies with guys who worked at the Yucca Flats testing facility for 30 or 40 years and they had the attitude that dropping the bomb at the time was the right decision. In retrospect, knowing what we know about its effects, it was still unequivocally the right decision. We should never have stopped testing, we'd drop another one tomorrow if "we had to."

Now the guys who worked desperately through WWII and throughout the Cold War on these weapons are certainly entitled to their opinions, and they are coming from a much different perspective than I am. I don't even remember the Cold War, though I was born before the end of it. I've never had to know what the fastest route to my local bomb shelter is. But this pro-bomb attitude pervaded the entire exhibit, even the parts talking about all the innocent bystanders (sometimes literally) who were harmed by the tests, let alone the devastating and ongoing affects on Japan.

The tests in Nevada (where they were moved after the accidental radiation poisoning of a bunch of Pacific Islanders hundreds of miles away from the original South Pacific test sites) became a tourist attraction. People would stand a "safe" seven miles away from the blast. You had to either put on sunglasses or turn your back, until the shock wave passed.

It just blows my mind that anyone would want to. There's a part of the museum where you can experience a simulated atomic blast. They blow wind at you, and it's loud but not loud enough to say, damage the hearing of the average museum patron. The white out is not searing light, it's just a white screen.

And I still thought it was terrifying. I think both my mother and I came out of that theater in tears. It's horrific enough that the government subjected our own service people to it, essentially to see what would happen to them, but these tourists were all civilians.

I also saw some footage of Nagasaki immediately after the blast. The main target had been a naval base that had housed something like 10 or 20 thousand troops. In the footage it was just a guy walking around a big empty field, marking out what used to be the perimeter. You just had to take his word that we were looking at anything.

You could see from the angles of char and the skew of windows where the blast had come from on the surviving structures. It was recently declassified film made by the war department, and devastatingly hard to watch.

Sorry, this has gone on a bit too long, like I always do when I talk about this museum trip, but the pervasion of Atomic Bomb imagery throughout our culture, and its history is a subject that is endlessly fascinating and chilling to me. It's terrifying, but also, so cool. It's because I'm a sci-fi geek. I mean, it all ties in with the Space Program, and Ray Bradbury, and pretty much every single one of my favorite B horror or science fiction films. Scarier in reality than it ever could be on film.

*This is another old post that has been cleaned up. So now I can refer people to this instead of talking their ear off about this museum.

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