A Skeptical Engineer

Sights at the National Nuke Museum

If you’re ever in Albuquerque, be sure to make time for the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History. It’s one of those museums engineers should get a kick out of. (Click here for other museums engineers should enjoy.)  The museum and its exhibits were originally housed on Kirtland AFB until heightened security concerns after 9/11 forced it to close. Eventually, local citizens got a new building built for it in 2009 and it is now the only public museum dedicated to preserving the history of the nuclear industry, though it seems to concentrate on the development and delivery of nuclear weapons.

Exhibits are filled with fascinating nuclear weapons, including a small, portable atomic missile, the Davey Crockett, which could be fired from a jeep or a simple tripod, and a trashcan-sized bomb a pair of Navy SEALs could take underwater to fasten to a ship’s hull. There’s also some odd stuff that seems like it was included because it was available. For example, there’s a Norden bombsight on display apparently because it was used to put atomic bombs on target and end WWII in the Pacific. The sight, a wonder of engineering, could put bombs within 75-ft of their intended target, a real feat in those days. And it was used up through the Vietnam War. There are also full-sized replicas (I hope) of Little Boy and Fat Man, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.

Little Boy












And Fat Man

Exhibits also highlight nuclear medicine, nuclear waste transport, and nuclear power for electricity. One of the nuclear medicine oddities they have is a 1930s-era shoe-fitting fluoroscope that used X-rays to let shoe salespeople see customers’ foot and ankle bones to determine their proper shoe size. They were yanked out of shoe stores to limit customers' exposure to radiation and because the staff at those stores had no training in using the devices.

Out in back of the museum is Heritage Park, five acres of mothballed airplanes, missiles, even a gun, that were all designed to deliver nuclear bombs. It includes a B-29 Superfortress, B-52B Stratofortress, and a B-47 Stratojet. The museum is now working on restoring and exhibiting the sail of the USS Polk (SSN 645), a ballistic-missile sub that carried Polaris and Poseidon missiles during its operational life.