NEAR SOCORRO, NEW MEXICO—There isn’t much left on the oppressive white sands of the New Mexico desert to mark that the nuclear age began here. On a wind-swept patch of land so barren that Spanish conquistadors, hailing from the sunbaked hellscape of Extremadura, once called the trek “the journey of death,” a lava-rock obelisk is the only thing marking the nearly 25-kiloton Trinity explosion that ignited the nuclear age.
“We knew the world would not be the same,” J. Robert Oppenheimer remembered in an interview for a television documentary in 1965. The blinding flash of the detonation—which was only revealed to the public later—was visible for almost 200 miles. The wind blew much of the nuclear fallout toward sparsely inhabited communities in the New Mexico desert. The only reason the Trinity test did not irradiate 100,000 people was because of a shift in the wind: One wrong gust, and radioactive dust would have blanketed Albuquerque and Santa Fe.