No thrill ride on the Strip will scare the wits out of you as effectively as the Atomic Testing Museum. That’s not its purpose, of course. This is a science and history museum (an affiliate museum of the mighty Smithsonian Institution) covering the 50 years of atomic testing, from 1951 to 1992 (928 nuclear tests in all), that occurred in the desert outside Vegas. But there comes a moment in the exhibit when your heart will race, your stomach will drop down to your knees, and all at once the reality of the power of the nuclear bomb will hit you with the force of a nightmare. The moment comes early in the exhibit. After an effective and dramatic retelling of the history that led up to the invention of the bomb, you’ll be ushered into a small room resembling a concrete bunker for a video about the testing, with shots of actual explosions. As the mushroom cloud rises in front of you, the lights flash a blinding white, subwoofers send vibrations to the center of your sternum, your bench shakes, and air cannons blast you with wind. It’s intense.
After that wrenching start the rest of the exhibit helps visitors put into context what they’ve seen. You’ll learn about the physics behind the bomb; the myriad of innovations, from high-speed photography to bigger drills, that emerged from the scientific work going on at the testing site; and the cultural “fallout,” if you will, of the Cold War, from advertisements glamorizing the bomb to panic-provoking bomb shelters. Iconic items from the test site—a decoupler, a massive drill bit, a farm silo—are interspersed with news clips and state-of-the-art, truly whiz-bang, interactive exhibits. Pull your attention from these, however, if a docent happens by. Many of these volunteers are former employees of the Testing Site; no they don’t glow, but get one talking and they’ll regale you with insider’s tales of what it was like to wrestle with the bomb, live in its shadow, and work for the government.
- Rick Garman