Inside the Capitol

Thursday, July 12, 2007

7-18 Trinity Blast


Syndicated Columnist

      SANTA FE -- As the date for the first atomic bomb test drew near, Los Alamos scientists, engineers and technicians grew increasingly tense.

   Would two years of work and $2 billion dollars be a waste? Would the bomb ignite the earth's atmosphere and destroy the planet? If successful, how would this terrifying invention be used?

   Project director, Gen. Leslie Groves had been in charge of building the Pentagon. With that project successfully completed, he wanted a battlefield assignment at the beginning of the war. But instead, the War Department wanted him to take on another project.

   Working with the world's greatest scientists had been a complete frustration. They certainly didn't think like generals. They wanted to share ideas with their colleagues. That was no good for security, but Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director, convinced him that was the only road to success.

   If this test didn't work, it would be Oppenheimer's fault. Oppenheimer knew it, and dropped to 115 pounds. The day before the blast was scheduled, a test of the trigger mechanism back in Los Alamos failed.

   That was George Kistiakowsky's responsibility. Kistiakowsky insisted the test was flawed and that the bomb would work. The weight of the project's success shifted to his back. Because of Oppenheimer's anxiety, relations grew acrimonious.

   Finally Kistiakowsky said, "Look Oppie, I bet you a month's salary of mine against $10 that it's going to work." Oppenheimer accepted the bet. He lost.

   A tremendous flash of white light changed to yellow, then to orange. Finally, the huge ball of orange began to rise. A few minutes later, nearby observers heard a tremendous bang, followed by a solid, continuous rumble. The force of that rumble convinced any doubters that the test had really worked.

   As a seven-year-old, living in Deming, I saw the flash of light. My bedroom faced northeast and I was a notoriously light sleeper. But evidently I was back asleep by the time the rumble arrived fifteen minutes later.

   Neighbors and townspeople talked about the rumble the rest of the day. Some said it sounded like a tornado. Others likened it to a freight train. I didn't even associate it with the light that had awakened me.

   My father always rose early, read the morning paper, and announced the news to when he got the family up. The next morning, he announced that the big rumble was a powder house, as we called ammunition dumps in those days, that blew up near Alamogordo. 

    A month later, he excitedly awoke us saying, "You know what that big rumble that woke everyone up really was? It was one of those bombs just like they dropped on Japan."

   And so it was. The military revealed its cover up more quickly than usual. New Mexicans I knew were proud that our state had contributed to the war effort.

   President Truman faced the Potsdam Conference with a renewed confidence. Winston Churchill, of course, knew of the bomb because the British "tube alloys project" worked alongside the Manhattan project. One evening Truman confided to Josef Stalin that we had a really big bomb. He was puzzled when Stalin didn't express surprise.

   Gen. Groves' fear was realized. The collaboration that produced the bombs so quickly also allowed information to leak to the Soviet Union. Most of that information passed between Klaus Fuchs and Harry Gold on the Castillo Street Bridge in Santa Fe.

   Castillo Street was one of several streets replaced by the development of the Paseo de Peralta loop around Santa Fe's downtown.  But that hasn't hampered the development of local legend.

   A block to the east, on Delgado Street, is a very similar bridge over the Santa Fe River. The most prevalent local story is that the secrets were passed under the Delgado Street Bridge.

   So the Russians had a blueprint for building a bomb. Unfortunately for them, it was the complicated bomb, because that was the one that took up most of the discussion time at the collaborative meetings.

WED, 7-18-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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