The National Atomic Testing Museum: Come for the Nukes, Stay for the Test and Measurement

Las Vegas’s nuclear testing museum is a shrine to Cold War tech

A few minutes from the gaudy energy of the Las Vegas Strip is a quiet museum dedicated to an age when nuclear fireballs lit up the Nevada desert like second suns. Starting in 1951, more than 1000 atomic devices were detonated at what is now called the Nevada National Security Site, about 100 kilometers north of Las Vegas. Detonations went underground in 1963 and were suspended completely in 1992. The National Atomic Testing Museum (NATM) chronicles the history of this period, as well as some of the work at the site that continues to this day.

While many visitors will be drawn to the museum by the dark glamour of the atomic age, the museum is in truth a celebration of test and measurement engineering. For obvious reasons, minimal details are given regarding the nuclear bombs at the heart of the tests. So the focus is squarely on the equipment used to capture the nuances of the highly energetic yet incredibly brief operating lives of these devices.

The museum displays many photographs and movies taken during the iconic atmospheric testing days, when Las Vegas hotels and casinos would run buses for tourists out to viewing sites. But for me the most interesting period followed the move to underground testing.

Researchers initially feared that the shift underground from the typical arrangement of placing a bomb on a tower would diminish the value of the tests, but in fact the result was higher quality data. All sorts of testing equipment and ancillary experiments (such as directing beams of radiation from the blast onto targets of various materials) could be set up much closer to the detonation epicenter. Of course, a big challenge for engineers was to make critical measurements and communicate the results in the scant fractions of a second before their underground equipment was vaporized. The exhibition halls are filled with ingenious solutions.

One fascinating exhibit is devoted to the development of nuclear rocket technology. Such rockets can deliver tremendous performance compared to that of chemical rockets. A test stand was built at the Nevada site, but a lack of funding post-Apollo led to the program’s cancellation in 1973. Nonetheless, NASA judged that the Nevada testing had sufficiently proven the technology for nuclear stages to pop up in Mars exploration plans for decades.

Some missteps in the desert are featured, such as the accidental release of a huge cloud of radioactive dust and gas during the 1970 Baneberry test. There’s also space set aside for a display on Native American artifacts and beliefs, acknowledging that an ancestral homeland is now one of the most dangerously contaminated places on Earth.

A temporary exhibition on Area 51 is also currently running. This seems to be the product of two distinct groups: one composed of those wanting to commemorate the difficult and often dangerous secret work done during the Cold War at facilities like Area 51 (also known as Groom Lake), the other composed of UFO-as-alien-visitor conspiracy types. Despite the frequent “Myth or Reality?” cautionary signs posted about, the UFO believers appear to have gotten the upper hand—but not the last laugh. On exiting the exhibition, via a dark corridor, visitors see a UFO-shaped group of lights floating above the corridor’s end, which resolve themselves into a pattern draped over a model of the SR-71 reconnaissance plane, flight-tested at Area 51 in the 1960s.

Finally, I usually wouldn’t bother mentioning a science and technology museum’s gift shop, since they are generally full of run-of-the-mill T-shirts with the local logo, along with a generic assortment of educational toys and novelties. But the NATM shop has a couple of items you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, including snow globes with little mushroom clouds inside and hand-painted shot glasses. Each of these glasses pictures the result of a specific Nevada nuclear test. I chose one that depicted the 1953 Grable test, the only time an atomic bomb was delivered via artillery shell.

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