There was a time when tourists flocked to Las Vegas just to see flashing lights. In the 1950s, many visitors arrived to view the neon, but a few set their sights on the atomic tests at the distant Nevada Test Site.
The Atomic Testing Museum commemorates this era, when the power of the atom was just being discovered and there was just as much naïveté as there was concern over what this new technology was capable of.
The museum packs a lot into its main exhibit area. You walk through the timeline of atomic research history, from America’s pursuit of the atomic bomb in World War II through the end of the Cold War and into the modern day, marked by a real piece of the Berlin Wall.
Expect to see all sorts of items: from the historical facts and technical details of atomic research to the pop culture artifacts like soft drinks, “nuclear” toy ray guns, comic books and pieces of pop art that pay tribute to – or warn of – the power of the atom. The gift shop offers similar kitschy goods, from atomic shot glasses to Curie and Einstein manga.
Located a little bit before the exhibit’s midpoint, the Ground Zero Theatre immerses you in the roaring crash of an above-ground atomic blast as felt in a shelter. As the rumble dies down, you are treated to a short documentary on the history of the Nevada Test Site and its role in the nation’s defense.
Further along, you can trigger a simulated underground test as if you were in the control room above ground, complete with a candy-apple-red button, video and rumbling audio to round out the experience. You can see a re-created ’50s office space from a Nevada research outpost, test items for trace radioactivity with a Geiger counter, or see a photo of a mushroom cloud looming over Fremont Street in the distant horizon.
Guests who visit between now and Jan. 5, 2012 also get to see the additional Building Atomic Vegas exhibit, which revisits the early days of the city during the Nevada Test Site period, focusing on classic resorts like the Riviera and Stardust and performers like Liberace, Robbie Knievel and of course, showgirls.
The museum is located on 755 E. Flamingo Rd. near the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and is open Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m.
Due to the nature of some of the displays, photography is not allowed in the main exhibit, but enjoy these photos of Building Atomic Vegas: