Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-3) landing at White Sands, New Mexico, on Mar. 30, 1982 (Doug Thompson photo)

Touching the history of space flight, atomic bombs, and death

My career has brought me close to America's space travel and accomplishments and a chance work with the lab that built the atomic bomb. Such things are part of our history and our memories

Had time to watch two History channel steaming documentaries on the Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic bomb. The footage of the desert site of the first test explosion and work at Los Alamos National Lab, both in New Mexico, brought back memories of visits and work at both locations.

In 1982, I was the communications coordinator for Cong. Manuel Lujan Jr. of New Mexico and we were at the desert landing strip when the Space Shuttle Columbia landed after it was diverted from the Andrews Air Force Base site because of weather.

The shuttle diverted a second time after a planned landing at White Sands was postponed after a sand storm hit the site. The shuttle was finally able to land on Mar. 30, 1982.

The landing was one of several I attended during my time with Lujan, both as a staff member of his Congressional office and later as Special Assistant for the Ranking Member of the House Science and Technology Committee, which had jurisdiction over the NASA space program and the Department of Energy nuclear research labs.

In that second capacity, I regularly visited Los Alamos, where nuclear research and other sensitive programs are housed. Lujan was born on the land near where Los Alamos sits and his father was Mayor of Santa Fe for many years.

Sadly, while on the Science Committee staff, I worked on the investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy that killed all astronauts on board, including what was planned as the first “teacher in space.” I was later part of a team in Vienna, Austria, when the Russians presented their first report on the Chornobyl nuclear plant disaster.

Visiting the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was successfully tested is sobering. The blast turned the sand into white glass-like particles. During briefings at Los Alamos, films of that explosion detailed the devastation of the bomb, which is now a small one in an era of harder and more destructive atom and hydrogen weapons.

“It is sad that so much of our scientific advancements over the years have been in developing more horrific ways to kill our declared enemies,” one scientist at Los Alamos told me over lunch at one visit. “I often wonder how our maker will judge us when the time comes.”

That thought came up earlier in my career as a newspaperman when I met the retired air corps. pilot Paul Tibbets, who flew the Enola Gay B-29 Staatofortess bomber to drop the first bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

Tibbets went to the former Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois. I was a reporter, photographer, and columnist for the paper when he visited his Alma Mata, which had closed in 1971 after operating as a private military school since 1879. Tibbits visited the school shortly before its closing and, in an interview, was asked if he had second thoughts about dropping the bomb that thousands of Japanese civilians.

“Hell no,” he said. “We were fighting a nation that had pledged to fight to the death of every man and woman on that island. The bombs shortened the war and saved countless lives of Americans and our allies.”

Another former resident of Alton, James Earl Ray, confessed to the assassination of Martin Luther King but later recanted in prison and died with King’s family feeling that he was a patsy, not the real killer. I tracked down the home in Alton where Ray was born and found it was later owned by a Black family.

During my time in Alton, a couple from the city purchased a jail cell that was considered the first one that held him in East Alton during his crimes before the King’s assassination. They erected it in their living room.

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© 2021 Blue Ridge Muse