For Father’s Day this year, my wife bought me plane tickets to New Mexico. Once a year, White Sands Missile Range hosts visitors at Trinity Site, the site of the first atomic bomb test. The weekend happened to be the same weekend as Joshua’s 20th birthday, so as his birthday present, he came, as well. Even in October, New Mexico is pretty toasty compared to the Seattle area. I grew up in Southern New Mexico, but you forget how hot it really is. Fortunately, the highest we got over the weekend was about 90F. That’s off the scales for Seattle, but pretty moderate for NM.
The first treat was that our Alaska Airlines pilot received special permission to fly around Mt. Rainier on the way out. This is only about the third time this has ever happened to me flying out of Seattle, and it’s spectacular. We flew from the North around about 2/3 of the mountain before finally heading Southeast towards Albuquerque. We were right at 15,000ft at just under 300kts (not that I had my GPS turned on or anything). Amazing view:
We flew into Albuquerque, then drove down to the other end of the state to stay with my sister in Las Cruces. Here’s the view from just up the hill from her house:
That’s a lot of desert. It’s really fun on a hot summer day when it’s 110F. While in Las Cruces, we got to eat plenty of the best food on the planet (this was at Andele in Mesilla, one of the best restaurants in the known universe):
I can get great Thai in Seattle, but Mexican food just isn’t quite the same up here. On Saturday, we drove out to Trinity Site. It was about 2.5 hours from my sister’s house. Once through base security and out to the site, you have to pass through another fence to get to the site itself. And here’s your greeting:
There’s nothing out here. Just desert as far as you can see, all the way to the mountains:
This is the monument that marks the center of the 100ft tower where the bomb was detonated:
Sprinkled around on the ground are little bits of Trinitite. Trinite is a green glass made of sand that was fused by the nuclear fireball. The whole area was once completely covered by the green glass, but the Army bulldozed almost all of it underground back in the 50s. Now there’s just tiny little bits scattered here and there. This bit I’m showing was about the size and shape of a Cheerio. It’s found in all shapes and sizes, but nothing we saw was larger than a US quarter.
The only thing left on the site from before the blast was a bit of buried concrete that held one of the legs of the 100ft tower. Everything else was obliterated by the fireball:
We also got to tour the McDonald Ranch House. The room below was the room where final assembly of the nuclear core was done before transporting it two miles away to the blast site:
Here’s an image from 1945 of the engineers loading the core onto a truck. And below that is my photo taken from almost the exact same spot:
It was a fascinating and sobering experience. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to visit.
While we were in New Mexico with a couple of days to spare, it seemed worthwhile to see something else. We’ve been to White Sands National Monument a hundred times, as well as the New Mexico Museum of Space History (it was called the International Space Hall of Fame back when I worked there in High School). But one place I never visited when I lived there was the Very Large Array (officially known as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory). If you’ve ever seen the movie Contact, you’ve seen the place. So off we went on Sunday morning. Three and a half hours later, we arrived in the most middle-of-nowhere place I’ve ever been. It was beautiful. And the telescopes were amazing. There’s a small visitor’s center, which is nice enough, but the neat stuff is outside. You start with this neat little bit of history, the actual detector unit that received the images from Voyager II (it was embedded in one of the large dishes you’ll see below, not standing alone like this):
There’s also some pylons that were signed by various scientists over the years. The one that caught my eye was this one, signed by Frank Drake:
Let’s be honest, though, this is what we really came to see:
Note the size of the people standing next to the thing. And keep in mind, there are actually 27 of these antennas (well, ok, 28 including the spare) spread out across the plain inside of a circle almost 25 miles wide. They’re all tied back to a central supercomputer via fiber optic cables where the data is processed into images. Below is the repair shed, including the transport units they use to move these things around to reposition them for different purposes:
Being out on this high desert plain, they clearly have concerns about lightning, as evidenced by the massive lightning arrestors on top of the administration building. But note that even the picnic table shelters have their own lightning rods:
On the way back to Socorro to eat lunch, we stopped at a canyon called “The Box”. Beautiful:
And last, but not least, the sunrise from my sister’s back porch on Monday morning before we left for the airport. You can see the sun rising over the Organ Mountains across the desert floor: