Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

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Photo By: Wiki Commons

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Photo By: Sydney Martinez

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Photo By: NASA | National Atomic Testing Museum

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Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Nevada National Security Site

Photo By: Nevada National Security Site

Photo By: Nevada National Security Site

Photo By: Nevada National Security Site

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Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Don English | Las Vegas News Bureau | Las Vegas Sun

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Don English | Las Vegas News Bureau | Las Vegas Sun

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

Photo By: Sydney Martinez

ATOMIC NEVADA: 24 TRUTHS SURE TO BLOW YOUR MIND

By SYDNEY MARTINEZ | February 2017
Updated: August 2017

Adventure

Points of Interest

ATOMIC NEVADA: 24 TRUTHS SURE TO BLOW YOUR MIND | SYDNEY MARTINEZ

Here’s the deal. Of all the nuclear testing ever done on the entire planet, 78% of it went down in the Silver State. Specifically, out at the Nevada Test Site – which became the Nevada National Security Site in 2000. Before visiting, I was thinking a lot of the same things I bet you are right now: mostly that it was a shame these guys decimated the landscape, all in the name of radiation-riddled “progress.” Lordly, how I was mistaken. One trip to the National Atomic Testing Museum and the NNSS set me straight on this slice of Nevada history. Ready to see some glowing light? Then get down on these 24 reasons why Atomic Nevada deserves to be a top-tier objective on your next Southern Nevada jaunt.

1. THE MUSEUM IS A SOFT PLACE TO LAND

If you aren't an actual employee of the test site oooor peculiarly obsessed with atomic history and Nevada’s role in it, the first step in understanding this alluring slice of Nevada’s past is to hit up the National Atomic Testing Museum in Vegas. Seriously, guys—the place is a few-block walk from the Strip, so even if you don’t have a mode of transportation, it’s a cheap Uber ride or a nice pedestrian break from casino land. It’s one of only a handful of privately owned museums scattered throughout the country, so what does that mean? You’re about to lock eyes with artifacts that raise the bar a bit, and definitely don’t exist anywhere else. Seriously, where else on Planet Earth can you come within inches of examining a real, large nuclear reactor, or “personal” atomic weapons, like a Backpack Nuke. A BACKPACK NUKE! It’s a bit of a brain bending subject, but even if a miniscule shred of desire exists, this is the place to overload your noggin with atomic history beyond your wildest dreams. Get the lowdown on the structure of an atom and how nuclear weapons testing really began, why Nevada fit the bill as a testing ground, how people throughout the country embraced [or rejected] the program, and why the oh-so-still-active Nevada National Test Site remains critically important to our national security. And get this: you can experience a simulated atomic bomb detonation in the ground zero theater on site and come to literal grips with mannequin fragments that managed to tolerate that blast. This place redefines well-done, and is worth an entire dang day… especially if you plan on checking out the test site for yourself.

2. OF ALL PLACES, WHY NEVADA?

Take yourself back to what you learned [or maybe experienced for yourself] during the 1950s, guys. By now, the existence of atomic weapons, developed during World War II, was public knowledge and people lived in terror that nuclear warfare was about to go down in a very serious way. The beginning of the Cold War was upon us, and the U.S. needed to set up a test site that could really handle this level of weaponry, in a place where the military could build a-bombs, test them, annnnd stockpile the heck out of the suckers, in order to legitimately defend ourselves if things got ugly. The first experiment of this capacity went down 2,600 miles west of Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific, and [although some pretty dang cool photos came out of the deal] it didn't take long for officials to realize that holding this operation way out at sea was going to be super expensive, time-consuming, and beyond difficult to coordinate. [On top of it, even back then, they realized that the fallout was no bueno for the ocean.] Basically, they needed a better site, and narrowed it down to four relatively remote spots—Utah, New Mexico, North Carolina and, of course, Nevada. As the Korean War intensified, the final push for a definitive location was made, and Nevada stood out with the right recipe of characteristics. With hardly any rainfall or other crazy weather, tests weren’t likely to get interrupted. This chunk of land was already federally owned land and surrounded by other chunks also under government control—Nellis Air Force Base, and a bunch of BLM-managed lands—so snapping it up wasn’t that difficult. Plus, the only nearby population center was the compact 50K-person town of Las Vegas, 65 miles away... In short, Nevada’s prospective porridge was juuuuust right, the government said I do, and by early 1951 things were all kinds of movin’ and shakin’

3. A-BOMB TESTING GALORE

By the time January 27, 1951 rolled around, the workers at the Nevada Test Site were rearing to blow some stuff up, real good. But, despite what you might think [I know for certain I definitely did], not all of the tests out here were detonated using the same methods. Here I was, living all 30 years of my life thinking that they just blew all these big ol’ bombs up, one after another, above ground. Sorely mistaken. While the first 100-ish tests did in fact happen that way, the remaining 828 went down below ground. If you really want to nerd out, the schmancy way to talk about these above-ground tests is to call them by their proper name: atmospheric tests. These included methods like NTS workers dropping bombs out of planes, strapping them to steel towers, and dangling them from balloons. Some were even shot out of cannons. Yeah, testing got a little colorful during this time, but hey, they needed to understand what they were capable of putting to use. Maybe what’s most interesting is the fact that none of these atmospheric tests actually touched the ground, but instead detonated right above it. Imagine all of those totally impressive nuclear bomb photos you’ve seen—the ones with the giant, bright orange mushroom clouds. Got it? Those are all above-ground tests, believe it or not. This went on for 11 years, all the way through 1962, thanks to the work of thousands of scientists, Army Troops and Marines who showed up to simulate war conditions. When workers started figuring out the effects of blast and radiation exposure, they moved all testing to underground shafts and tunnels where radioactive materials could be more safely contained. The vast majority of the tests at the Nevada Test site were underground, and continued to occur for 30 more years. The last test took place on September 23, 1992.

4. MY KIND OF CODE WORDS

Operation Buster-Jangle. Quicksilver. Gumdrop. Sunbeam. If you’re not into code words, there might be something wrong with you, that’s all I’m going to say. Since things were [and still are] super duper top secret around these parts, military and NTS workers definitely needed code words to keep tests buttoned up. All operations out there were highly classified and restricted to a need-to-know basis, so of course code words helped refer to stuff that would go right over our measly civilian heads. Code words weren’t born at or exclusive to the Nevada Test Site, but were certainly used a whole heckuva lot, serving mostly as names for all the tests about ready to kick off. During the beginning of the testing days through the mid 1950s, all tests were assigned names from a list of official military code words, like Upshot-Knothole, Houston, or Tinderbox. But the names started to get wayyyy more creative in the late 50s, when Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories submitted a list of names to the Department of Energy. And get this, they stuck to one of my favorite themes: CHEESE. They made sure there weren’t any duplicates of socially frowned-upon names, so of course! Topics like cheeses, ship parts and ghost towns were totally safe… and oh-so-entertaining. “Operation Gouda: ENGAGE.”

5. "THE PLACE WHERE THE TALL MUSHROOMS GROW"

Despite the fact that every single thing about what was going on at the Nevada Test Site was top secret, classified information, it didn’t take long for it to catch the attention of, oh… anyone, anywhere within 500 miles of the blast. It’s hard to imagine, but these infamous mushroom clouds could be seen as far away as 100 miles away from ground zero, and often were accompanied by earthquake-like rumblings. Whats even more difficult to believe is that folks in cities as far as San Francisco even experienced some of the seismic activity that stemmed from the Nevada Test Site. The shape of these explosions, which undeniably resemble a mushroom, soon became an identifier for the Nevada Test Site, Las Vegas, and the entire flipping state Nevada as a whole, while atmospheric tests were underway. In the most absolutely suitable ways, the Nevada Test Site soon got its very own street name: “the place where tall mushrooms grow.”

6. THE TOWN OF MERCURY? TOTAL THROWBACK THRILL

So, we know massive amounts of testing required a whole boatload of workers to head out to an extremely remote area of Nevada every day for work. To be exact, sixty-five miles from downtown Las Vegas, and that’s just one way, with plenty of dirt. You might imagine that would be start to get real old, real quick, especially if your job required you to actually be present on the Nevada Test Site every dang day of the week. Me personally? If someone told me I needed to commute 120 miles a day, there’d better be some mighty fine benefits or I’m straight up walkin’. And that is essentially exactly what happened. With the caliber of work going on at the NTS paired with that colossal of a commute, it didn’t take long to substantiate the need for an official headquarters. And thus, Base Camp Mercury sprung to life in 1950, becoming a full-on town by 1955 when the population swelled to 2,700 people. By 1957, over 3,500 people called Mercury home, and the place still remains the second largest city in Nye County. The crazy thing is, no actual permanent residents lived there, but instead posted up for a few weeks or months at a time while various projects they were involved with were in full swing. Dormitories and housing were built, but Mercury also had its own hospital, bowling alley, swimming pool, cafeteria and even a post office. By the 60s, even more recreational and shopping facilities were put in motion, like a movie theater, and a school for long-term workers’ kids. Most of the town moved on by 1992 when the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty went into effect, but this place is a totally-perfect, frozen in time retro gem by today’s standards. The cafeterias are still slingin’ treats, and make for a fun stop on the tour to say the very least.

TravelNevada PRO TIP: When partaking in a tour at the Nevada National Test Site, pay attention to the two fenced holding pens on your left, right as you pass through the first security checkpoint. It most definitely seems like they might be hosing something that’s fallen victim to the Nevada elements, but no, this was exactly how they looked in all their glory. So what are they? Actual holding pens to wrangle the thousands and thousands of protestors of nuclear weapons testing… a place where NTS guards tossed anyone who crossed that security checkpoint, peaceful or not. And here’s a stat that’ll realllly blow your mind: 536 anti-nuclear protests were held near this very entrance that saw 37,488 participants and 15,740 arrests.

 

7. EVEN KENNEDY SEES THE MAGIC 

Despite the fact that the Nevada Test Site captured the laser-focused attention of millions of people around the globe, and was monumentally crucial in national security, only ONE United States President has ever visited the actual test site. One! And that was none other than the amazing John F. Kennedy. Still can’t quite drink that one in, but let’s keep it moving. Kennedy showed up, in the flesh, during December of 1962, took an aerial tour over Frenchman and Yucca flat, and visited the nuclear rocket development station, too. We know that nuclear weapon testing, development and stockpiling were crazy-important, but another hot-button issue during this era was understanding space travel. Just as we were in a race with the Soviets on nuclear weaponry development, we found ourselves in the exact same place in terms of space travel. We wanted to be on that dang moon… and preferable before those pesky Cosmonauts. Kennedy visited the NTS with the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office Manager, Harold B. Finger, and in a speech just days later, suggested that nuclear propulsion could come into play in future missions to the moon and Mars because nuclear powered rockets could potentially cut space travel in time by half.

8. STADIUM SEATING... WELL KIND OF

Since everyone near Nevada was feeling seismic activity and spotting gargantuan mushroom clouds from their dang hotel rooms, it didn’t take long for there to be some serious public intrigue surrounding the happenings at the Nevada Test Site. That, and the mere fact that “secrecy is the word to remember” was an employee mantra for those working at Mercury. Rule number one: there’s no quicker way to draw attention to your dirty secrets than saying no one can every know under any circumstance. Duh. Don’t get me wrong, photographers and news outlets were totally covering the atomic testing out there for historical recording purposes, but I couldn’t think of anything more newsworthy.

The public was desperate for more and, slowly but surely, more and more reporters flocked to the Nevada Test Site, where they could actually watch live detonations. This is probably one of the craziest ideas I could think of today—standing within a couple thousand feet of a live, atomic blast—but some of the greats lined up to do it, covering it just like any other sort of live news. Most journalists congregated around a large outcropping of rocks, which didn’t take long to be officially dubbed as News Knob. Tons of reporters hung out here, and also reported from a series of benches that other invite-only onlookers watched from. The cool part? You can still see News Knob AND these original benches at the Nevada National Security Site today.

9. YOU'LL BE DOUBLE-TAKING SOME SIGNAGE YOU JUST DON'T SEE EVERY DAY

It’s safe to throw this out there: when you’re on the NNSS tour, brace yourself to see a whoooole bunch of stuff you’re going to have a hard time absorbing… from the otherworldly landscape to the level of security, these sites that have been flying under the radar—on purpose—for decades now. But if you aren’t phased by any of that, not to worry. You will be when you start double taking some signs that remind you where you’re at quick right in a hurry. Count on seeing signs that will quickly remind you you’re in an active test site, warning, “CAUTION: Contaminated Area, Radiological Lead” or “NO CLASSIFIED DISCUSSIONS IN THIS BUILDING” or “Warning: Security Area. DO NOT ENTER. Deadly Force Authorized.” See what I’m saying?! You don’t see signs like this every day—yet another reason to bring your own two eyes to the NNSS.

10. A POCKMARKED LANDSCAPE? UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE CENTURY

Remember, in 1962, when all that atmospheric testing moved underground for good? By that point, an even 100 tests had been executed up top. The next 828—all the rest—were completed below the earth’s surface, which means about 90% of them. I’ll get into more specifics on how this happens later [see #15 if you are need to know in a hot second, otherwise stay tuned], but the fact of the matter is the entire dang test site is totally peppered with gigantic craters nearly everywhere you look. If you’re lucky enough to tour the Site on one of those amazing bluebird Nevada mornings, pay attention to the range of light and how it illuminates craters you may not have seen earlier that day. THEY. ARE. EVERYWHERE. And if you’re driving along and the road seemingly takes a hard 90 turn for no reason? Yeah, you’re most likely avoiding a colossal flipping crater, maybe even a few of them. Is the Nevada National Test Site the only place you can see man-made craters of this size and quantity, at every literal turn? Yeah, probably. Couple that with the undeniable supernatural vibe that just won’t quit and oooooh yes you’ve got yourself some satisfaction coming in the best of ways.

11. GOOD ENOUGH FOR NASA? GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME

Colorful imagination or not, it’s not just me who thinks this dimpled landscape is oddly reminiscent of the moon. To be totally transparent, the crater-riddled surface of the Nevada Test Site was so oddly similar to galactic landscapes that NASA sent a handful of teams of training astronauts to use it as a training ground, in order to adequately prepare for a mission to the moon. Starting in November of 1970, astronauts Charles Duke and John Young were sent to the Nevada Test Site to prepare for the Apollo 16 lunar mission. Pretty cool, right? To get down to the nitty-gritty here, Duke and Young spent a lot of their time at a crater that impacted the Nevada desert by a 31-kiloton Schooner device just a few years before. There are tons of craters, both man-made and natural found throughout the nation and Nevada specifically… so why this specific crater, you ask? Turns out, the terrain and and geology of this onv were a remarkably close match to a crater on the actual moon, called the South Ray crater. Perhaps what’s most interesting that Duke and Young even strapped on all their suits and gear to get the most bang for their buck.

12. SEDAN CRATER

Truly, a place that needs zero introduction. Look at that flipping picture, I mean serrrrriously. Start getting excited about seeing this babe on the Nevada National Test Site tour, because Sedan is one of the stops that will have you understanding the raw force of the testing out there. Like all other craters at the Test Site, this beaut was another below-ground test, but was a bit different because it was part of the Plowshare program. As the folks out at the Nevada Test Site began to understand the ins and outs of atomic bombs, there was a brief period of time when they thought it might be a good idea to implement atomic blasts for excavation-related projects... building dams, bridges, canals, cutting highways through mountain passes, mining, you name it. Basically moving a massive amount of earth, super duper quickly. It was certainly an ambitious program… perhaps, however, they learned with the Sedan test, just a bit too ambitious. On July 6, 1962, a 104-kiloton thermonuclear device detonated, creating seismic energy equivalent to a 4.75 magnitude earthquake. YEAH. This blast indeed moved a whole boatload of ground...12 million tons to be exact. The explosion occurred 635 feet below Yucca Flat’s surface, but once that thing went boom, the surface rose 300 feet within 3 seconds of detonation, leaving a 320-foot-deep crater spanning 1,200 feet in diameter. Sedan Crater is one of the only places in the Nevada National Test Site that’s been officially added to the National Register of Historic Places, and thanks to the sweet little tour you’ll be on, you’ll be one of the just 10,000+ visitors who visit each year.

13. THE CLOSEST YOU'RE GONNA GET TO THE FABLED AREA 51

Once you set foot on Sedan, get this: you’re only 15 miles from the the legendary Area 51—almost definitely the closest you’ll ever be to this storied site. Because, yep, it’s part of this place. [That ambiguous name itself, arguably part of the site’s mysterious allure, actually wasn’t designed to be. The land was simply gridded up into numbered sections of no real particular size and order and this now infamous “Area” just happened to be the 51st chunk of land that got assigned.] I get it, the minute you declare something as “TOP SECRET” (especially when it’s paired with a government-centric operation), the first thing IIIIII want to do is break every single law imaginable or sell a few organs to get in those dang gates—a strict whatever-it-takes sorta basis. Unfortunately, like me, you’ll have to settle for the mere fact that you made within 5 minutes of this highly classified portion of the Nevada National Security Site, because this upper northeastern chunk of the NNSS will definitely NOT be part of the tour. But hey, being this close? I’ll take it… so cool! It’s true, everything happening at Area 51 is the upper echelon of top secret. Picture the biggest secret you could think of ever being asked to keep, and multiply by 25 gazillion. As we know, active testing began in 1951, but by 1955 officials decided they wanted to construct a small airport. They even redubbed the place with a more approachable name—Watertown—but by then, the technical name of the section had already gotten sticky and, certainly today, no one’s ever really looked back.

14. RADIOACTIVE INCIDENT FIRST RESPONDER TRAINING

Get this: the Nevada National Test Site is not only conducting mega-important, present-day experiments that are totally vital to national security, but they’re one of the world’s only training sites for first responders handling radioactive emergency situations. Wrap your brain around that. Just think, if we were ever to enter a nuclear war situation, how would we know how to treat people who had been exposed to massive amounts of radiation? This isn’t something that’s covered in every EMT, firefighter or cop academy… when you think about it, it’s pretty specialized training for [what I’d hope to be] a freak scenario. But wildly important to be prepared, right? Whether or not we’re talking a gigantic Sedan-sized atomic bomb, or a dirty bomb [what most terrorists create], radioactive distribution is a super bad thing and I’m grateful to know that the NNSS offers training to any first responder who wants to do it. For FREE. When you’re on the tour, this is one of the stops you’ll get to check out and will be memorable because it looks like something has gone terribly wrong. That’s because it indeed is a staged emergency scenario obstacle course of sorts—a place where they’ve set up wrecked planes, turned over buses, and other staged accidents. A total Apocalypse Now obstacle course. The kicker? The whole thing takes place on a portion of the site that they know to be contaminated with radiation… but just enough to set their radioactive sensors off for training purposes. Pretty cool, right?

15. "CAGING THE DRAGON" AT ICECAP

You know those below-ground tests I was talking about earlier? Thing is, they had to get the part that held the nuke wayyyyyyyyy below ground. So they got pretty dang good at drilling tunnels, and fast. They of course were testing, trying to understand a variety of different scenarios, so some were 3,800 feet deep and others [like Sedan] were only 635 feet below the surface. Scientists quickly understood the extreme dangers of radiation, so the point of these tests was to contain it underground. And it wasn’t just burying a bomb underground and detonating it, no way. They understood that this would definitely help trap a lot of the radiation below the surface, but to ensure all radiation was contained below ground, they totally sealed off the shaft used for drilling, and even designed special cables and wires so no radiation could leak from those sources, either.

That whole practice of trapping the radiation underground? Soon became known as CAGING THE DRAGON. In order to drill these super deep holes they needed to set up a staging area that usually included a gigantic drill… I’m talking the kind that weighed 300,000 pounds with 17 cutters that could drill a 1,000 foot hole in 20 days kind of gigantic. Usually, some multi story scaffolding [an “emplacement tower” if you want to get proper] was constructed around the drill hole. The part that held the actual nuke—a rack, or canister—was lowered, and sealed off. Then they’d take the scaffolding down, often times reusing the materials at their next test, and detonate the dang thing from afar. Not cool (for NNSS testers) at the time: the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty went into effect just DAYS before one such test, called Icecap. Extremely cool (for us) nowadays: they pretty much just walked away, leaving all the stuff set up. The result? Now it’s a real-deal, frozen-in-time museum of sorts where you can see just about everything that went into one of these things, besides the actual nuke itself.

16. THE ENDLESSLY FASCINATING APPLE 2

This place, you guys. Wow. IMO, this is the coolest dang thing you can plan on seeing at the Nevada National Security Site Tour. I’m sure the peeps at the NTS knew they had to give people soooome kind of inside skinny as to what the heck they were doing out there. So, the very first start-to-finish televised test happed out at a site they called Apple 2. Is it fascinating that they’d live broadcast this entire thing? Absolutely. But for me, the real intrigue was just how they set this one up and what we can still actually see decades later.

In order to understand how an atomic blast would truly impact your regular old run of the mill American town, they needed to basically build one… then detonate a bomb pretty close to it. And so they did. A few homes were built, that were made of different materials and spaced different distances from ground zero. The fascinating part was that they didn’t just stop at building an actual home, they completely stocked the entire thing, just like a lived-in home.

They had everything – appliances, furniture, food in the pantries, cars parked out front - the whole shebang. J.C. Penny knew that all eyes were on this thing, I mean this was front of mind for nearly every American, but especially so when it was televised. So, they contributed mannequins from their department stores, and get this - they were outfitted head to toe in J.C. Penny threads.

As you can see, the one that was televised was pretty close to ground zero and blown to smithereens. But, two of the houses - one made out of wood, and the other brick - remain at the NNSS today, and are an official stop on the tour.

17. THE MANNEQUIN WHO DIDN'T QUITE MAKE IT

The whole J.C. Penny thing is really well documented at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Vegas, and really breathes life into everything that went down at Apple 2. One entire exhibit shows exactly how the inside of these homes were staged, mannequins and all. They’ve also got a sweet little book that you can flip through that shows the before-and-after pics of the mannequins. How perfectly pristine and outfitted they were before the blast, and what condition they were in afterward, if they even survived in the first place. While some of the homes remained at Apple 2, supposedly some mannequins were completely thrown from the house and recovered 30 feet from the front door. Story has it that this was a woman mannequin, and the pattern from her dress was screened right onto her dang legs. Other body parts of mannequins were recovered near the homes, like the hand pictured above. The best part? You can actually touch the thing at the museum. You know, if you’re into that.

18. ATOMIC POP CULTURE WENT CRAY

With news coverage of the Nevada Test Site reaching an all-time high, just about any and every biz wanted a piece of it. Food and liquor companies, hotels, restaurants, comic books, toys, clothing lines, you name it. I mean after all, it was the Atomic Age… an exciting cultural phenomena. It was newsworthy and they wanted to make their product relevant and just as buzzworthy as everyone else. Plus, it was such a hot topic that people wanted to feel like they were part of it. Even if it was as small as buying a cinnamon-flavored jawbreaker called an Atomic FireBall, hey, they were experiencing Nuclear Nevada to some degree. It didn’t take long for atomic themed bars and hotels to pop up, and let me put it to you this way: it definitely wasn’t hard to get your hands on your very own piece of atomic swag.

19. THE MISS ATOMIC BOMB BEAUTY PAGEANT WAS A REAL THING

As Vegas reworked their marketing schtick to orbit around all things atomic, they came up with one of the best ideas ever, in a way that only Vegas could. We all know that in a place with a nickname like “Sin City,” modesty is a bit of a moot point, right? By this time, seeing a showgirl (or a few dozen) in Vegas was essentially a required part of the trip. Even now, if you leave Las Vegas without being graced by one of these sequin-studded babes, you’re just not doing it right. But what happens when you marry atomic pop culture annnnnd showgirls? Welcome to the Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contest. I know what you’re thinking: this must be a joke. BUT, it was totally a real thing that actually happened, beginning in 1952, when the first atomic pin-up girl, Candyce King, was crowned “Miss Atomic Blast.” Amazing, right?! As you might imagine, the whole thing was an instant hit and happened three more times. Each event had the most incredible attire and varying titles… all atomic-themed, of course. Trust this, you wouldn’t want to be up against these babes for a themed costume party because they kill-crush-destroyed it. Paula Harris won in 1953 and was dubbed “Miss A-Bomb” and Linda Lawson was crowned “Miss Cue” in 1955. And the actual crown, you ask? You bet it was in the shape of a mushroom cloud. All of these contests were stunning in their own way, but the most famous and iconic of them all was none other than Lee A. Merlin, aka THE “Miss Atomic Bomb.” Las Vegas photographer Don English snapped this shot of her at the NTS with a cotton mushroom cloud on the front of her swimsuit, which ended up being distributed nationally. And if you ask me, this shot is the best photo to come out of the entire dang thing.

20. GROUND ZERO AT FRENCHMAN FLAT

The Apple 2 houses are cool, Sedan is amazing, and the real-deal museum situation going on at IceCap is nuts. But, the only place to really wrap your brain around the force of these atomic blasts is near ground zero, on Frenchman Flat. This is where a lot of the first tests happened, on the dry lakebed sometimes called Groom Lake. If you’ve seen some historic shots of soldiers in trenches, or even pigs in military uniforms, all that stuff went down at Frenchman. AND. IT’S. COOL. Just like they were building mock homes over at Apple 2, they basically built a whole lot of other city infrastructure out at Frenchman Flat because they wanted to see how a nuclear bomb would affect everything in a modern city. Here, they built motels, a bunch of differently shaped of varying materials, train tracks, and more. What’s the first thing you’d need after surviving a nuclear war? Probably money, right? Even special bank vaults were brought in to test at Frenchman, which is one of the coolest things you’ll see on the tour. One wasn’t far from ground zero, and miraculously survived. The thing was loaded with documents and despite what you might imagine based on that pic above, everything on the inside of the vault was totally intact. Seeing some pretty thick rebar distorted like a piece of tin foil is pretty incredible to see, but the force behind these a-bombs becomes crystal clear when standing beneath a train trestle. See that pic on the right up there? Yeah. Those steel train tracks warped into that crescent looking shape when the bomb dropped to the right of it. Pretty flipping nuts, right?

21. A COMPLETE UNDERGROUND PARKING GARAGE

Another can’t-believe-it’s-not-fake sort of situation at Frenchman is an entirely complete underground parking garage. Again, they were trying to see how everything in an American society would be impacted if one of these bombs dropped on a real city. So, they built an entire underground parking garage, and filled it with actual cars! Urban legend has it that these whips were later sold to actual people in Vegas, but who knows the real story. Oh yeah, I just picked up this sweet ride they nuked the hell out of out at the Test Site. Talk about bragging rights for dayyyyys.

22. QUINTESSENTIAL NEVADA DESERTSCAPES

It might seem like it’s just a destroyed wasteland out there, littered with all kinds of stuff that has managed to survive both a nuclear blast and decades of the Nevada elements. But definitely don’t get it twisted—everything about the Nevada National Security Site is stunningly beautiful and completely exemplifies real desert beauty. Can we just talk about this pic for a sec? I, too, was totally guilty of thinking I was going to head out there to see a bunch of stuff that was blown up decades ago, and don’t get me wrong here, there is so much to be impressed by in that regard. But no matter where you’re traveling in Nevada, or what the subject matter is you’re zeroing in on, this dang landscape has a way of working its way in and steals the show. Every. Single. Time. There’s so much to see at the NNSS, which is definitely the main focus of everything, but be prepared to see some remarkable panoramas that will melt your face off, too. Pretty quintessential Nevada out there—a place that not just everyone gets to appreciate for themselves.

23. VINTAGE VEGAS OWNED IT

After Apple 2 was televised, the already-swelling attention went totally gangbusters. Vegas quickly realized that this whole thing was tremendously unique and just so happened to take place in their backyard. So they did what any smart marketing guru would, and latched on to every shred of atomic culture. Vegas soon became the unofficial headquarters for Nuclear Nevada—the gatekeeper for all things atomic—ushering in out of towners with this selling point alone. While Las Vegas is a super densely populated metro area today with millions of people, you’ve gotta remember that during this time, only 50,000 people lived in Vegas. Aside from being the gambling motherlode, atomic Nevada became a identifier for Nevada, almost overnight, to boot. Downtown Las Vegas hotels soon started targeting soldiers traveling to Camp Mercury, and others boasted a room or poolside view where you could watch the atomic blasts. That, and it didn’t take long for lovers to scope out vantage points to watch the blasts and make out. Talk about a cheap date, right? Nevada already had pretty exclusive branding—not only could you gamble, visit a brothel, and live life grand on the Strip, unlike anywhere else—but the whole Nuclear Nevada thing really upped the ante. So much so, that those famous mushroom cloud blasts are still an icon for the Silver State, even inspiring homages in local architecture and art.

24. ...AND STILL DOES, WITH THIS BLAST FROM THE PAST

And the beauty of it all? Yeah, you can still grab onto this crazy culture because it WILL get under your skin in all the most satisfying ways. Atomic Nevada is still lurking around every corner in southern Nevada, but one definite must is Atomic Liquors, right in the heart of the OG downtown Las Vegas. Guess what? This place is actually Vegas’ oldest bar, believe it or not, and made their name by inviting people to sit on the rooftop of the bar to view atomic bombs out at the NTS. How flipping cool is that!?

The place is a retro delight - a true blast from the past. Check out historical photos that line the walls, and even a real deal time capsule in the floor. And if you think you’re getting out of this ordering a regular old run of the mill bevvy, you’re sorely mistaken. Get your mits on their drink list - all atomic themed, duh - and chat with the bartenders who are sure to know the ins and outs of some cool atomic history that went down in this very place. Talk about a sexy capper to my kind of history lesson.

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