I had intended that my last full day of the trip be local to Albuquerque. However, there I was, aching feet, a whole day left, unlimited miles on the rental car, and no set schedule.
I drove to the southeast corner of town to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History just as it opened. The rest of ABQ was driving to work. Dispite fifteen minutes of chaos as the museum’s summer campers arrived, I nearly had the place to myself. One docent, a former Los Alamos scientist, offered interesting tidbits on the exhibits.
Fascinating is an underwhelming word. The pace, effort, and logistics required to develop the A-bomb was astounding, and this museum goes into great detail.
The museum also has exhibits on the Cold War, the Atomic Age in Culture, Nuclear Medicine, and Energy, plus plenty for kids to do. It wasn’t until I saw that this is a Smithsonian Affiliate museum that I understood one reason that it was so well done.
The rear of the museum is an open-air space where they have various military equipment and aircraft on display, including an B-29 Superfortress and a B-52 Stratofortress. Additionally, on display are various vehicle mounted missiles and surface-to-air missiles.
I admit that I left feeling a bit uneasy and awestruck thinking about the enormous power we humans have the ability to wield, and whether we can control this capricious geenie.
At 11 AM, I made the choice to hop on the freeway heading south. It was either the very long haul to White Sands or a shorter one to the Very Large Array. The former would have me driving back at night, and I really wanted to see the night sky from the desert. However, an early flight the next day was the deciding factor.
At Socorro, I headed west.
As the landscape flattened out, cattle ranches became a frequent site. In a broad basin, white structures appeared in the distance, like a display of desert snow cones.
The size of the radio telescope’s dishes was hard to gauge until I began to get up close. The dishes are 82 feet across. These were in a straight up configuration, and spaced in the most compact orientation. At it’s farthest spread, the farthest array dishes are actually 13 miles from the center point. These receivers detect light in the long wavelength radio band sent out by objects in space, one trillionth the intensity of the interference given off by our cell phones. Therefore, cell phones must be turned off while visiting the VLA, except they may be momentarily on to take pictures if the are in airplane mode.
I spent some time in the visitor’s center, sitting alone in its theatre watching a well done production about the VLA narrated by Jodie Foster (Contact). Constructed from 1972 to 1980, the entire system has been upgraded over its life to leverage advances in computing power and technology growth.
The self-guided tour was a very short walk out to the array and back, with several informational stops along the way. To stand in the shadow of there mammoth dishes as they look millions of years into the past was both humbling and inspiring.
I drove back to Albuquerque, and spent the last part of my day finalizing my airline tickets, packing and enjoying a short walk through town near the hotel.
Six very full days in New Mexico made it easy to crave home. I arrived home knowing that I barely explored the state, but was entirely satisfied.