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The A-bomb 'changed the entire world'

Gero Schlies / dbAugust 6, 2015

Almost as costly as the moon landing, the Manhattan Project involved over 125,000 people in its development. DW's Gero Schliess travelled to Los Alamos, where the A-bomb first unleashed its power over 70 years ago.

nuclear test, mushroom cloud
Image: Imago/United Archives International

Nobody knows how many times Robert Oppenheimer took the road from Santa Fe up to Los Alamos. It's one of the most beautiful drives in New Mexico, passing through a spectacular landscape that Oppenheimer hoped would inspire the scientists. The route winds across rolling hills, past canyons and breathtaking views under clear blue skies.

Brilliant scientists

Los Alamos is a paradise, and at the same time, it's the place where the first weapon of mass destruction was developed.

In this idyllic region, Oppenheimer led the "Manhattan Project" that US President Franklin D. Roosevelt hoped was going to help him win the race against Nazi Germany for the construction of the first atomic bomb.

At Los Alamos, the nuclear physicist set up "this spectacular, unprecedented - before or since - gathering of brilliant, brilliant minds," for the military research project, says Heather McClenahan, the director of the local history museum.

Six thousand scientists, including the likes of Nobel Prize winners Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr and Hans Bethe and their families, eventually lived in Los Alamos.

Los Alamos Ranch School building
The Los Alamos Ranch School was once an elite prep school for boysImage: DW/G. Schließ

In fact, more than 125,000 people worked on the Manhattan Project in laboratories and production sites across the country, McClenahan says. But, she adds, it was the secluded Los Alamos where everything came together, more specifically the Los Alamos Ranch School, a renowned elite school that the Army took over for the project in 1943.

Initially codenamed the "Manhattan Engineering District" - because the idea for the project emerged in the New York City borough of Manhattan - it later became simply the "Manhattan Project."

They all called him 'Oppi'

William Hudgens was a chemist in Oppenheimer's team and 70 years later, he is once again in the School's wood-paneled dining hall that was also used for meetings back then.

"Everybody knew everybody, there were no levels of importance," the 90-year-old told DW. At lunchtime, you could suddenly find yourself seated next to Oppenheimer, he remembers, a really nice man whom everyone just called "Oppi."

The team was young, the average age was 26. William Hudgens remembers many parties and even more drinking. At the same time, the mood was tense and the workload was heavy. Everyone was worried that the Germans would be the first ones to have the atomic bomb, which was decisive for the outcome of the war.

'Most expensive project after moon landing'

The Manhattan Project had absolute priority for the US government, and resources were practically unlimited. What began with a modest budget of $6,000 in 1940 had ballooned to $2 billion just five years later.

It must have been the most costly research project after the landing on the moon, Heather McClenahan says. And apart from being the site where then scientific research and engineering occurred, the museum director says, Los Alamos had another key function as it was where the "weaponization of this big scientific idea" took place.

William Hudgens
Being part of the team was a "rare opportunity" in his life, Hudgens saysImage: DW/G. Schließ

The aim was to create a functioning weapon based on all available scientific findings about enriching uranium and the chemical extraction of plutonium. Teams were working simultaneously on the development of two types of atomic bombs, the uranium and the plutonium bomb.

White Sands Missile Range

Finally, July 16, 1945 was chosen as the date for the test blast of the plutonium bomb, chosen over the uranium bomb because it was more complicated and because the team didn't have enough enriched uranium for a second bomb.

The test took place at the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, a piece of land that stretches across 3,200 square miles (8,287 square kilometers). Sixty ranchers were forced to lease their land to the Army, says Lisa Blevin, public affairs specialist at the range.

The military only opens the gates to the historic site once a year. Lisa Blevin tries to dampen any expectations the small group of visitors, mainly physics and chemistry students from Los Alamos, may have. "Don't expect Disneyland," she cautions.

Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904 - 1967), left, with Major General Leslie Groves
Oppenheimer and Major Groves investigate the test siteImage: Getty Images/Keystone

After a 45-minute drive to Ground Zero, it's clear what Blevin meant. An unimposing obelisk made of black lava rock commemorates the site where the first nuclear test bomb exploded. Radiation there is still ten times higher than usual, says Lisa Blevin, adding that people are exposed to even higher doses of radiation on a four-hour flight.

Beauty of the mushroom cloud

The crater is barely noticeable, the land merely slopes slightly toward the obelisk. Strung unceremoniously along the surrounding security fence are photos of the blast that Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves, who was responsible for the entire project, watched from a safe distance. Back then, eye witnesses gushed about the beauty of the atomic mushroom and the glow caused by the explosion.

"It's just an explosion crater, there's not much more to see," says 23-year-physics student Kodi Summers, adding it "was cool to have seen it all the same." Max, a student from Germany says it would have been "better if the bomb had never been built." But the 24-year-old adds that it's a good thing that the nuclear bomb deescalated the Cold War: there's never again been a war between states that "had nuclear options," he points out.

Ground Zero at the White Sands Missile range
Ground Zero at the Trinity Atomic Bomb siteImage: DW/G. Schließ

Surprised that it worked

A month after the test, the US dropped the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Many of the scientists involved in the project only heard about it on the radio, and they were surprised. Some doubted to the very end that the bombs would function. "There was a feeling of relief, but there was no celebration," says William Hudgens. The scientists didn't feel like celebrating a thing that had killed so many people, he adds. He echoes the feeling many of his colleagues had: "It saved the lives of probably millions of people, cutting the war as short as it did."

Working in Los Alamos "was a rare opportunity and the best thing that could have happened to him," Hudgens concludes. "The A-bombs changed the entire world."

Oppenheimer eventually took a different point of view. He is said to have told US President Harry Truman - who approved the dropping of both bombs - that he now had blood on his hands. The misgivings stayed with the "father of the A-bomb" to his dying day.