Stan’s Obligatory Blog


Visiting the Nevada Test Site

Filed under: — stan @ 8:59 pm

I first met my friend Gordon at our first job out of college, back in 1982. We were at McDonnell-Douglas in the department that dealt with modeling nuclear weapons effects. So we read and thought about nuclear weapons quite a bit in those days, and we both thought that it would be interesting to get a chance to see an actual nuclear test. Since above-ground testing ended in 1962, and even underground testing ended in 1992, it’s just not possible. But going to see the place where they did the tests back in the 1950s was the next best thing.

The tours of the test site are given once a month, and they fill up fast. I signed us up for this tour last July. And Tuesday morning, we headed over to the Atomic Testing Museum for the tour.

There were about 45 people on the tour. We all got on the bus for the long ride out of town to the test site. On the way there, we passed by Creech Air Force Base, where we saw a drone flying around and practicing touch-and-go landings. A little bit farther out, we finally got off the main road and entered the test site. The streets in that part of the base were all named for nuclear test series’ from the 1950s. Tumbler, Snapper, Ranger, et al. We had a snack stop there, and then we got back on the bus to head out to Yucca Valley.

On the way to Yucca Valley, our guide pointed out some old wooden benches next to the road. He said these were the benches that spectators sat on to watch the early tests at Frenchman Flat.

We rode the bus all the way through that valley and over a small pass to get to Yucca Flat. There, they took us to see the site of the last prepared underground test. It was put together and ready to go in 1992 when all nuclear testing was stopped. So we got to go inside the tower and see the test rig, complete with a small dummy warhead at the bottom and all the instruments to record the explosion mounted above it. The whole thing was suspended over the hole, ready to be lowered down for the test.

Continuing on in the bus, we stopped for our one photo-op of the tour. The guide had a camera, and he took a group picture of us on the observation platform at the edge of the crater left by the Sedan test in 1962. This test was supposed to be a demonstration of ‘nuclear earthmoving’, and there was actually a proposal to use this to dig a harbor in Alaska, and even talk of using nuclear bombs to dig a giant roadcut for Interstate 40 in California.

Getting back on the bus, we headed back toward Frenchman Flat, with a short side trip to see one of the houses that was built for the Apple 2 test in 1955.

We stopped for lunch at the cafeteria at the test site. In the hallway there, there were large photographs of some of the tests.

After lunch, we got back on the bus to go to Frenchman Flat. We saw the nuclear waste dump site there. And then we went to see the remains of the buildings and other structures built for the 1957 Priscilla test. The railroad bridge with the bent steel girders was particularly impressive.

That was the end of the tour, and the bus headed back to Las Vegas. As always, one must exit through the gift shop, so we got to go to the Atomic Testing Museum’s gift shop at the end. It was an interesting and entertaining day.


A day in Las Vegas

Filed under: — stan @ 10:12 pm

Monday was our only full day in Las Vegas between the stair climb on Sunday morning and the Nevada Test Site tour on Tuesday. So Gordon and I spent the day playing blackjack. It was entertaining, much like when we used to play back in the ’80s. Then that evening, we went downtown to Atomic Liquors. And that was our day.


Scale the Strat 2017

Filed under: — stan @ 6:52 pm

Today was the 2017 edition of the Scale the Strat stair climb. Up the core of the Stratosphere tower to the observation deck. That’s 1,391 steps and about 805 vertical feet. I’m not really trying to go fast at these things any more. My goal for the day was just to make it to the top without stopping, and to average at least one foot per second vertical.

When we lined up, I made sure to get toward the back of our group, since many of them were planning on going considerably faster. When it was my turn to go, I started my watch, and then started up the stairs at a fairly relaxed pace. For some reason, the climb seemed shorter this time. It’s only about 20 flights to get to the first rest area, and then 23 more to get to the second. Then 21 more to the top of the tower core, and then it’s just 7 short floors to the finish. In the end, my time was 13:20, which is exactly 800 seconds. So I made my goal, and even though I was coughing for a good bit of the rest of the day, it wasn’t too bad this time.

After getting cleaned up, Gordon and I went downtown to play some blackjack at the Fremont and at the El Cortez.

Here’s my chart of the staircase.


The Santa Susana Field Laboratory

Filed under: — stan @ 2:22 pm

Some months ago, I ran across some information about Boeing giving tours of the old Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Laboratory. This is the bit of rugged terrain in the hills west of Chatworth that I’ve seen lots of times from the window of an airplane on its way to landing at Burbank. But I didn’t know that they offered tours. So this was a chance to see some aerospace history, as well as an infamous bit of nuclear power history.

Rocketdyne built the engines for nearly all U.S. ballistic missiles, from the earliest ones with engine designs based on the German V-2 rockets, all they way through the Saturn V and on to the Space Shuttle. And most of them were tested on the stands at Santa Susana. They tested engines all the way up to the J-2, which powered the second and third stages of the Saturn V. The F-1 engines for the Saturn V first stage were tested out in the desert at Edwards Air Force Base.

Not all of the test stands are still there, but the small one where they tested the engines for the Atlas missile, and the large one where they tested the J-2 were still there. At the first stand, we got a short talk by a Rocketdyne retiree who was there in the 1950s, and worked on the Atlas project. He told us about how they did the tests, and how they calculated everything on slide rules.

A lot of what goes on at the site now is related to cleanup from the old days. Apparently they used a lot of trichloroethylene to clean the rocket engines between test firings, and a fair amount of it got spilled on the ground. They told us that studies have shown that most of it soaked into the sandstone underneath the site. That’s good in that it kept it from going into the groundwater. But it’s bad in that it makes the solvent essentially impossible to clean up. So there’s that…

The other big piece of sightseeing was the site of the Sodium Reactor Experiment. That’s an infamous bit of nuclear history in that the reactor suffered a partial meltdown in 1959. For something that’s just over the hill from the San Fernando Valley suburbs, that’s a pretty terrifying idea. There’s basically nothing left of it on the site any more. Just a flat plain where the building housing the reactor used to be. In any event, it was interesting to see the site, and it’s appropriate in that I’m signed up to take a tour of the Nevada Test Site when we go to Las Vegas at the end of this month.

So all around, it was an interesting morning.

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