April 2, 2020

Week 25: Seeking Secrets in New Mexico

Climbing the dunes at White Sands National Monument.

(All photos by the author).

New Mexico is one of the most clandestine states in America. The first atomic bomb was detonated here at Trinity Site in 1945, and most of the drama of the Manhattan Project at the end of World War II played out here. More recently, the F-117 Stealth Fighter called Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, New Mexico home before its retirement in 2008.

And thatís (insert conspiratorial tone here) just the stuff that theyíve told us about. Yes, New Mexico has more than its fair share of secrets. Weíve also discovered in the past week some fine tourist destinations for the science minded as well as we explored the Land of Enchantment.

Our first stop was Silver City. A welcome respite from the heat of southern Arizona, Silver City has a remarkable downtown district that was carved into an enormous gorge during a flood over a century ago. The revitalized downtown district now houses several fine coffee shops, a historic museum, and several new businesses, such as the astronomically-themed Syzygy Tile works:

Syzygy tile works in Silver City, New Mexico.

From there, we based our operations in Las Cruces at the Encanto Hotel. The Encanto is set to host space tourists departing from nearby Space Port America on sub-orbital hops with Virgin Galactic some time in 2015.

Our main mission while at Las Cruces was to explore White Sands just to the east of the city. A playground for the military for decades, you can also drive and tour the porcelain dunes at White Sands National Monument. We actually managed to catch the launch of the solar observing payload RAISE from the visitorís center at White Sands.

As a result of the launch, we were also stranded on the eastern side of the range while the highway was closed, and decided to head into Alamogordo to check out the Clyde W. Tombaugh Museum of Space History. Weíd been here back in our USAF days, but decided to make a pilgrimage back here once again to find the final resting place of primate kindís first true astronaut, the astro-chimp Ham.

Sorry we forgot to bring a banana, buddy.

One of the decelerator heat shields for the Viking Spacecraft tested at White Sands.

There are also two space-related stops en route to White Sands from Las Cruces: the Space Murals Museum just outside of town, and the White Sands Missile Museum located on the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range.

The Space Murals Museum just outside of Las Cruces.

Heading northward, we stopped in Albuquerque for a weekend at the outstanding Nativo Hotel. Of note in the downtown area is the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. The center has a fine astronomy section and collection of dinosaur skeletons unearthed across the state, and we were entranced with the interactive exhibit for the Chaco Canyon spiral. And donít miss the outstanding art exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum, located just across the street.

The entrance to San Felipe de Neri church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But the highlight of our Albuquerque weekend was the Museum of Nuclear Science located near Kirtland Air Force Base. This museum features exhibits from the dawn of the nuclear era, including weaponry and energy development. Heck, just perusing the collection of artifacts from nuclear era culture was fascinating, complete with era comic books, propaganda posters, and replica fallout shelters. And donít miss the Revigorator, a water jug sold in the 1920s and 30s that was lined with radium that was said to provide health benefits!

A British nuclear weapon on display at the Nuclear Science Museum in New Mexico.

From Albuquerque, itís now onward to Santa Fe and the climax of our New Mexico adventures.

More to come!


  1. dan says:

    In the early 1980s, a couple friends of mine and I did an all-night, somewhat-moonlit hike west – deep into White Sands from the main Monument road – starting somewhere near the terminus loop. During the hike, about 4-5 miles in, we saw a cluster of buildings west of us. Somehow we hiked by them without seeing them next to us. Once we were past them, we were able see them again east of us. At least 4-5 structures, at least two with tall rounded tops. No lights were on – we were just seeing silhouettes. We did not see them hiking out. I’ve asked numerous locals as well as examined aerial photos and have never found any concrete evidence as to what we saw.


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