National Museum of Nuclear Science & History – Albuquerque, NM

Interesting fact: “Nuclear” is one of those words I am very self-conscious about pronouncing, so I just say “nuke” when I can. WTH cares, right? OK, then… Moving on…

I keep learning neat little tidbits about the ABQ and here is another one: It is the home of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History which was chartered by Congress to serve as America’s repository and steward of nuclear-related historical items. In other words, it has a bunch of neat nukey stuff in it.

If you think about it for a nanosecond you will realize that Albuquerque is an appropriate place for such a museum. There is Los Alamos not too far to the north – a town created to help with the Manhattan Project, which was responsible for the first atomic bombs. Then there is the Trinity Site to the south at the White Sands Proving Ground. For those of you following along at home, the Trinity Site is where the first nuclear weapon was detonated. And of course the Sandia National Laboratories is in Albuquerque, very close to the museum. Sandia is also a product of the Manhattan Project and is tasked with the mission to maintain nuclear weapon systems and do other nukey stuff.

I wonder if all of this nuclear activity in the greater ABQ area has anything to do with the wonderful sunsets you see here. Things that make you go hmmmmm…

OK, back on track – the museum. Having just opened in its current location 5 years ago, the National Nuke Museum is definitely a nice, modern facility that is guarded by a Terrier Missile battery out front. You know, in case the very nearby Kirtland Air Force Base decides to attack. Makes perfect sense to me!

Terrier Missile battery standing guard.

Terrier Missile battery standing guard

The museum itself is well laid out, talking you through the history of atomic studies, including the proclamation in 1939 that this new technology would make some super cool bombs. OK, maybe the wording wasn’t quite that ‘eloquent’ but it was interesting reading the letter that stated that bombs could be made from this discovery. Scary stuff if you think about it. And that was just the start of the museum.

There were little areas describing the different parts of the country that were instrumental in the making of atomic weapons – Los Alamos, Hanford, Oak Ridge, etc. Very interesting to see how much money, materials and man power went into the study and creation of nuclear weapons. More on that in a bit.

Then there was the visit with a Little Boy and a Fat Man. No I hadn’t stumbled into a candy store, but rather I came across replica casings of the first and second atomic bombs dropped on Japan, leading to the end of World War II.

Yes, those two bombs were instrumental in bringing the war in the Pacific Theater to an end, but they were also the start of the nuclear arms race that turned into the Cold War, aka a great excuse for many countries to spend an obscene amount of money on weapons that were pretty much outdated the minute they were introduced.

The primary theme I took away from the visit to this museum is how quickly new weapons systems were created, how quickly they became obsolete, and how much money this whole Cold War thing cost. One part of me, the kid who spent countless hours reading war stories and about military history growing up, found this utterly fascinating. Another part of me, call it the adult  side that has seen a thing or two in his life, wondered how much of this was propelled forward by the military-industrial complex instilling fear in the general public creating a nation full of supporters willing to spend billions to stay one step ahead of the big bad evil men behind the Iron Curtain. Something tells me I am far from the first to think this.

When you have nuclear weapons flying around the skies there are bound to be accidents, which are referred to as a Broken Arrow. While there are all sorts of fail safes that supposedly keep these weapons secure should an ‘incident’ occur, the thought of a nuke falling out of the sky unintentionally is a bit disturbing, to say the least.

The museum had two bomb casings from one Broken Arrow incident that occurred in 1966 over Palomares Spain when a B-52 bomber collided with a KC-135 aerial tanker during routine refueling, resulting in four nuclear bombs falling 28,000 feet. I guess one can hardly call this a routine refueling as I don’t believe it is routine to have two aircraft collide while transferring fuel, but whatever.

So four bombs were released during the ‘routine’ refueling incident and the museum is displaying two of the casings, which are remarkably undamaged thanks to their parachutes deploying and slowing the whole crash with the ground thing down a bit. The other two weren’t so lucky. Apparently they blew up upon impact, which bombs tend to do. Oops!

After the Cold War section of the museum, there were sections about nuclear medicine, some cool educational exhibits, nuclear energy displays and, of course, a discussion about how nuclear waste is transported and stored. Kinda gave me a warm fuzzy of the ‘glowing’ kind. What is that clicking noise I hear in my ears? Oh, that is just a geiger counter in the next room.

Oh, least I forget, there is a 9 acre (I believe) outdoor display of aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles, and other nuclear weapons systems. Now it is no secret that I love me a good airplane, so I never pass up the opportunity to walk amongst flying machines.

Included in the displayed aircraft was a B-29 bomber, the type of aircraft that delivered the two atomic bombs to Japan in 1945. And there was a B-52 bomber, which was a key player of the Cold War. And the Titan II ballistic missile on display was, well, massive. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of one. Not that I would have much time to contemplate anything if I were.

So the ABQ continues to surprise me. And makes me think. Which generally is a good thing.

I do recommend that you visit the national Museum of Nuclear Science & History if you happen to be in Albuquerque and are looking for a couple of hours to kill. Or if you like this kind of stuff. Or if you like to think. And we all like to think, right?

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