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The National Atomic Testing Museum

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In the shadows of the infamous Las Vegas Strip is the Frank H. Rogers Science and Technology building, home to the National Atomic Testing Museum, devoted to preserving the history of the Nevada Test Site (NTS) and the early days of the atomic age. While technically not a “weapons museum” in the usual sense, this 10,000-square- foot facility focuses instead on the history of the ultimate weapon, namely nuclear weapons and the 928 announced nuclear tests (100 atmospheric, 828 underground).

National Atomic Testing Museum

A Cold War single warhead and a scale model of the USS Indianapolis — the ship that delivered the first atomic bomb across the Pacific — are in the museum’s impressive collection.

It’s the only one of its kind that offers visitors a look into the history of atomic testing, beginning in the Second World War to the end of atomic testing during the Cold War. The museum offers the reasons why the United States developed the atomic bomb. In the collection is a complete copy of the Einstein–Szilárd letter sent to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt that warned Germany might develop an atomic bomb and suggested the United States should start its own nuclear program. This prompted action by Roosevelt, which eventually resulted in the Manhattan Project developing the first atomic bombs.

Going Nuclear in Sin City

First opened March 2005 as the “Atomic Testing Museum,” today it’s operated by the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The museum has been affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution since December 31, 2011, when President Barack Obama signed a military spending bill, designating it as the National Atomic Testing Museum. It’s now one of just 37 national museums in the United States, and the only one dedicated to the study of atomic testing.

National Atomic Testing Museum

The National Atomic Testing Museum documents the history of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) in the desert north of Las Vegas. It’s located just a stone’s throw from the Las Vegas Strip.

The museum is a noted repository for one of the most comprehensive collections of nuclear history. As part of its mission, the National Atomic Testing Museum continues to seek to collect and preserve a wide variety of materials and artifacts relating to atomic testing, the Nevada Test Site, the Cold War, and nuclear and radiological science and technology. The current collection includes thousands of rare photographs, videos, artifacts, scientific and nuclear reports and data, and one-of-a kind scientific collections.

National Atomic Testing Museum

A 1/6-scale replica of “Little Boy,” the code name of the atomic bomb that was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

This includes numerous nonfunctional/non-nuclear warheads and other weapons including scale models of Little Boy and Fat Man, the respective code names for the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In addition to the scale models of those bombs, the museum offers a concise history of the Manhattan Project and the beginning of the nuclear age. This includes an overview of the unsuccessful “Thin Man” nuclear bomb, and how this led to Little Bomb — a gun-type fission weapon. 

National Atomic Testing Museum

A full-size replica of a Cold War-era nuclear weapon.

There are multiple “bombs” or warheads in the collection, and these include a B57 tactical nuclear bomb and the massive B-53 high-yield “bunker buster thermonuclear weapon.” Designed from 1958-61, it remained in the U.S. arsenal until 1997. It had a yield of 9 megatons and was the most powerful weapon in the U.S. nuclear arsenal after the last B41 nuclear bombs were retired in 1976.

From Warheads to Plow Shares

While the focus is on atomic weapons testing, the museum also highlights how these weapons in
the long run may have resulted in peace. It’s largely focused on the period from the first test at NTS on January 27, 1951, to the present. Among the exhibits is a short presentation in the “Ground Zero Theater,” simulating the experience of observing an atmospheric nuclear test as well as a discussion on whether it was necessary to develop such a weapon, but how thankfully these were never used.

National Atomic Testing Museum

An exhibit that shows the 1950s mindset for dealing with a potential nuclear war — just hunker down in the bunker and wait out the fallout.

The film footage includes various thermonuclear explosions, including the hydrogen testing of “Bravo,” which exploded with the forces of a 15-megaton bomb and created a fireball that was 3.6 miles wide! Talk about the “big one.”

National Atomic Testing Museum

One forgotten aspect of the history of atomic testing is that the United States actually invited a Soviet delegation to the Nevada Test Site to help steer the world away from developing more atomic weapons.

Museum exhibits also include vintage Geiger counters, radio badges, and other radiation testing devices, but the National Atomic Testing Museum also features exhibits relating to Native American artifacts that were from test area. The Atomic age has a unique history of pop culture memorabilia in everything from candy and breakfast cereal, to comic books and toys, and even a lab kit designed for children.

National Atomic Testing Museum

The museum chronicles the development of atomic weapons from the 1940s to the 1960s.

The collection now includes more than 3,500 artifacts that span more than 65 years, as well as more than 16,000 official government and unofficial personal photos that document the 70 years of atomic history. 

National Atomic Testing Museum

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, atomic energy was all the rage in pop culture.

The museum, which is divided into several key galleries, allows visitors to understand the history of atomic testing both in the atmosphere and later underground. What’s notable too is that while visitors can take in the weapons of mass destruction that came about from the atomic testing, it also highlights how cooler heads prevailed and how the United States and Soviets actually met in 1988 at the Nevada Test Site. Within just a few years of that historic meeting, the Soviet Union would fall and the long Cold War would be over.

It’s fitting then that the National Atomic Testing Museum even has on display a section of the Berlin Wall, a symbol that serves to mark the end of the Cold War and the need to end atomic testing. 

National Atomic Testing Museum

It might not look much larger than a conventional bomb, but this example of a Cold War-era B57 tactical nuclear bomb (a training model of course) could take out a reasonably sized city. It was designed to be deployed by a variety of U.S. military aircraft.

Beyond the direct nuclear aspect of the test site, the museum offers a small exhibit to the nearby “Area 51” and while the truth may or may not be out there, the gallery also offers temporary exhibits on other aspects of the atomic age. Finally, just outside the museum is a weather station that records weather data for downtown Las Vegas, and the data includes temperature, wind speed, and notably background gamma radiation in microroentgens per hour. 

The National Atomic Testing Museum

Hours of Operation:
Open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day

Frank H. Rogers Science and Technology
755 E. Flamingo Road, Las Vegas, NV 

Admission: $22


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