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Author's Journey

   A few summers ago, I rode Amtrak’s hi-level passenger Southwest Chief via Barstow, Tuscon, and Gallup across the magnificent Southwest to Albuquerque, New Mexico.    It was the old route of the famous Super Chief.  I attended the TCA Train Collectors Association 2019 Convention.   As I stated in my bio, I love trains.  Deep in New Mexico is a story associated to WW II, namely the Manhattan Project; more about that later.  .  .  

   TCA provided a tour to the Los Alamos Historical Museum, which was an all-day adventure.  We learned the stories of Los Alamos from multiple perspectives, then visited the Bradbury Science Museum.  But, before those tours, I visited the Very Large Array on a TCA tour.  The Very Large Array Radio Telescope facility is a facility composed of the largest telescopes in the world of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.   This facility is a real National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).  The NRAO is a collection of huge antennas and they are about 127 miles from Albuquerque or a 2-hour drive (50 miles w. of Socorro, New Mexico.) 

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   On our way there, in the desert of no man’s land, we passed by this building (above) which we were told is a newly-built super huge distribution center for Amazon. (Next, a close-up).   The VLA is a very large telescope facility, and (just below) shows a line of the dish-shaped antennas but .. do not be fooled.   They look so tiny because they are still far away.  Founded in 1956, the NRAO provides state-of-the-art radio telescope facilities for use by the international scientific community. 

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Hidden Amazon? 

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   Entrance to the Visitor Center.  Link to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at night.  The Visitor Center features an award-winning documentary, a new 24-minute film about the recently renovated Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope.

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   The film is narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Jodie Foster, star of the 1997 Warner Brothers film, “Contact,” which was filmed in part at the VLA.  The film replaces an earlier video that ran at the VLA Visitor Center auditorium, which is visited by some 20,000 people annually.  It plays daily at the Visitor Center, and NRAO has made the video available for viewing online. 

    “In ‘Contact,’ I played the role of an astronomer using the VLA.  In narrating this new film for the VLA Visitor Center, I have the privilege of introducing tomorrow’s scientists, technicians, and engineers to the amazing complexities of this great telescope, and to the wonders of the Universe that it reveals,” Foster said. 

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   Titled “Beyond the Visible,” the film tells the behind-the-scenes story of the operation and scientific achievements of the VLA, which has been at the forefront of astrophysical research since its dedication in 1980.  The movie was one of Art Bell's favorites. The antenna structures you see are not small. Each dish is 82 ft. in diameter.  Each antenna is 94 ft tall. 

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   Spectacular ground and aerial footage of the iconic radio telescope is augmented by first-person interviews with staffers who keep the telescope working and scientists who use it to discover exciting new facts about the Universe.  The film also depicts many of the technical tasks needed to keep the array functioning at the forefront of science.   “Since the last film for the Visitor Center was produced in 2002, we’ve completed a massive technological upgrade that turned the VLA into a completely new and vastly more powerful tool for cutting-edge science,” said Dale Frail, NRAO’s Director for New Mexico Operations.   “It was time to update the story we tell our visitors,” he added.  

    The new film was shot on location under the supervision of Director Nils Cowan of Hemlock Productions, and edited by Joanne Ardinger.   NRAO’s Assistant Director for Education and Public Outreach, John Stoke, served as Executive Producer.  The film is winner of a 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award, 2014 Interpretive Media Award from the National Association for Interpretation, and a 2014 Bronze Telly Award. 


    Defined, astronomers use Radio Astronomy (radio telescopes) to observe the naturally occurring radiowaves that come from stars, planets, galaxies, clouds of dust, and molecules of gas.  Radio astronomy is the study of celestial objects that give off radio waves.   With radio astronomy, we study astronomical phenomena that can be invisible.  Our eyes are built to see the cosmos in visible light.  However, objects in the universe radiate many other types of light, across what’s called the “electromagnetic spectrum”.   Light travels through space in waves, like ripples in a pond.  Each ripple has a peak and a trough, which is called a cycle.   Unfortunately, for a while it was closed to the public due to COVID-19, but it was open when I visited it and the tour was worth it.  We were given a walking tour to the Radio Sundial, past our Whisper Dish Gallery, on to our Radio Astronomy Gallery, and finally to the base of one of the 230-ton working antenna on the array!   We next headed toward the control building’s outside staircase to the observation deck for a view of the array itself and details about the supercomputer processing inside the control building.

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   Soon after WW II began, Professor Albert Einstein send a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The letter warned FDR of the discovery of nuclear fission and warned that Nazi Germany might develop atomic bombs.  It was feared that nuclear fusion would lead to the development of a weapon that would allow Germany to win the war.


    He urged the United States to start its own nuclear program.   This is the letter Einstein sent, actually written by Szilard and signed by  Einstein.  It spurred the Allies into action.  

     A picturesque Ranch School campus and its surrounding acreage was the site chosen for a secret project during WW II.  It is in a “Secret City”, 33 miles n.w. of Santa Fe along the perimeter of todays Los Alamos National Laboratory, but back then it was wilderness.


     December of 1942, as related in vol 2 of A Toast For You and Me, America’s Participation, Sacrifice and Victory, Prof. Enrico Fermi produced the first chain reaction that was able to create a huge explosion.   The critical mass of uranium or plutonium produced the chain reaction  that if controlled would produce energy but if uncontrolled created the very powerful explosion.  Gen. Groves chose J. Robert Oppenheimer, the nation’s leading theoretical physicist to lead the project.  In the early part of the war, Gen. Groves and physicist Robert Oppenheimer decided the research and development of the atomic bomb needed to be consolidated in a single laboratory where upon scientists could work together in secret.  Oppenheimer suggested the geographical area of present day township Los Alamos.  Below, in color is the small lake called Ashley Pond as it appears today. In blue tone is the Los Alamos Tech area c. 1944.

The pond is near the Los Alamos Historical Museum.


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A journey into the Manhattan Project

Whispering Dish 

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   Virtually isolated, it was sufficiently close to an available workforce and transportation infrastructure; Oppenheimer loved northern New Mexico and it was ideal for Project Y (the code name.)  You see a copy of the eviction letter from the War Dept that closed the school.  

     A part of the  WW II-era Manhattan Project stood on the former boys prep school which was built by Ashley Pond, a former Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider, but who had died in 1932    It is hard to believe this was to solve the war.  Many students were Boy Scouts but they all had to vacate the area in 1943.  They were a hardy bunch.  All photos in color taken by the author, Robert Valentine.  "Creating a school" gives a small rundown on the boarding school.

     I was able to take a tour with TCA to visit the Los Alamos Historical Museum, which is not a one-building affair, followed by the Bradbury Science Museum.   During WW II, the “Secret City”, expanded greatly from its prior wilderness form.

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     Los Alamos provides a majestic landscape, sits on an isolated mesa, and access to it is still difficult.  By mid-WW II, you had over 130,000 scientists, engineers, technicians and other workers.  Outside Los Alamos, there existed other secret sites which produced the materials necessary for an atomic bomb.  Fissionable material was needed, known as Plutonium-239, the fissionable isotope of plutonium. 


     The Los Alamos Ranch School, the Ranch School campus is in the heart of downtown, was also known as the Ranch School Guest Cottage.   Approaching the school from the front, today.

     Los Alamos Ranch School from the back side with a tour.  For a quarter of a century it had been a boarding school with well tended gardens and vistas fit to kill.  

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     The Lodge.  Our knowledgeable tour guide Georgette, who knew her stuff backwards.   Actual interior of the Lodge where the actual scientists had their dinner and also served as a meeting hall for Project staff.  The Lodge is one of the few buildings from the era that still stands.


     A race against time.  Entry to the project. 

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     A view in pictures what fissionable material can do. The photographs are mainly from the Bradbury Science Museum, within walking distance from the Big House.   The first detonation of a nuclear device was conducted by the United States Army at 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945, as part of the Manhattan Project.           Oppenheimer chose the name “Trinity” for the test site; inspired by the poetry of John Donne.        

     An initial test was conducted on May 7,  with a fireball explosion seen from Alamogordo Army Air Field, some 60 miles away.  The radioactivity was low enough to allow several hours of unprotected exposure.  Then, came the big one on July 16.  Sitting next to the assembled July 16 bomb known as the "Gadget" is chemist Donald.  It was a solid spherical core but a very deadly one when completed.   It was raised onto a tower that stood on four legs that went 20 feet into the ground, with concrete footings.   Atop it was an oak platform, and a shack made of corrugated iron that was open on the western side.  It was hauled up with an electric winch.  A truckload of mattresses was placed underneath in case the cable broke and the Gadget fell.  A seven-man arming party, consisting of scientists Kenneth Bainbridge of Harvard, George Kistiakowsky, Joseph McKibben and four soldiers drove out to the tower to perform the final arming.  Actual special lens.  Actual story of the dirty, rotten spy who passed information to the Soviet government.   To test the Gadget required some 250 personnel from Los Alamos to work at the Trinity site.  My gratitude to Michael Lennick for the educational video which comes from a PBS special "Dr. Teller's Very Large Bomb". Several displays from the Bradbury Museum.  A bust of Dr.  J. Robert Oppenheimer by the late Santa Fe sculptor, Una Hansbury.   Entrance to the Bradbury Museum. 

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     The Trinity explosion was captured on video by Berlyn Brixner.  You see a 35mm Movie Camera.  A close-up of the description follows.  In addition to the camera which shot moving images is this example of an armored steel camera that captured stills.  This single shutter camera was built in 1943, designed by Julian Mack.  Walter Koski developed the techniques that helped attain accurate pictures of imploding steel cylinders using this camera.  Those images allowed scientists to study things like the rate of collapse and the symmetry of extinguishing cylinders, making it possible to verify predictions and the behavior of the implosion.  The implosion experiments were critical in the success of the Trinity test.  .  . 

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     December of 1942, as related in vol 2 of A Toast For You and Me, America’s Participation, Sacrifice and Victory, Prof Enrico Fermi produced the first chain reaction that created a huge explosion.  The pond. To be cont.

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