In 1945, the world witnessed the true power of nuclear weapons when two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, one on Hiroshima on August 6, and on Nagasaki three days later. Realizing the potential (and perhaps ramifications) of such a weapon, at the war’s end, the United States created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to both study and develop atomic science and technology. Although the Manhattan Project had successfully tested the world’s first nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert, the AEC knew a more long-term, permanent testing area would need to be established in order carry out more tests and maintain the level of secrecy required as the Cold War era dawned.
On December 18, 1950, President Harry Truman authorized the establishment of a 680 square mile portion of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range, just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada, as the Nevada Proving Ground, which would be under the management of the AEC. Just a little over a month later, on January 27, 1951, nuclear testing at the NTS officially began with the detonation of Shot Able, a 1-kiloton bomb that became the first air-dropped nuclear device to be exploded on American soil.
And the testing only exploded (no pun intended) from there.
Between 1951 and 1992, when the last nuclear explosion was conducted, over 1,000 nuclear tests were conducted on the Proving Grounds. Although technically “top secret,” mushroom clouds and seismic activity could be seen and felt in nearby Las Vegas. And the City of Sin has never been known for keeping things quiet.
Rumors and rumblings of explosions in the desert began to expand and caught the attention of KTLA station manager Klaus Chambers. Intrigued, in February of 1951, he sent a crew from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in hopes of catching one of these mushroom clouds on air. Since the crew wasn’t able to get anywhere near the testing grounds, reporter Stan Chambers and crew secretly positioned a camera on top of a high-rise hotel and aimed their camera northwest.
And then they waited.
And waited. And waited.
At approximately 5:30 AM on February 1, a B-50 bomber dropped a Ranger Easy Bomb with a 1-kiloton payload 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Live images of the explosion went from Chambers’ camera to KTLA’s transmitter on Mount Wilson Observatory over 200 miles away and then right into the homes of viewers in Los Angeles (those who were awake and watching at the early morning hour).
“We stayed on the air,” Chambers recalled later. “They waited for the right time, and all of a sudden there was the flash. The people watched it. Gil [Martin, KTLA anchor] described. [Robin] Lane [KTLA station staffer] talked about it, and that was our telecast. That one flash. You just this blinding white light. It didn’t seem real. We didn’t have videotape. You couldn’t say, ‘Let’s see that again.'”
One and done. No instant replay. No analyzing. No endless loops. Either you saw it or you didn’t.
But enough people saw it to get tongues wagging even outside of the Nevada desert.
The U.S. government’s top secret project wasn’t so secret any longer.
Because of this, in early 1952, the Atomic Energy Commission decided to permit press coverage and a live coast-to-coast television broadcast of its next atomic bomb test. By this time, the U.S. was embroiled in another conflict, and it was thought that a televised explosion would build public support and show how an atomic weapon could save the lives of thousands of American soldiers if and when it was deployed in battle. As such, the military decided to go all out with the test; “for the first time,” according to History, “ground and airborne troops would conduct military maneuvers on a simulated nuclear battlefield after the blast. Fifteen hundred soldiers would be crouched in 4-foot-deep trenches just four miles from “ground zero,” closer than American troops had ever been to a blast zone. Plans called for the detonation to occur 3,500 feet above the desert, a record altitude for a nuclear test, in order to prevent the ground to be crossed by the soldiers from becoming highly radioactive.”
The logistics of broadcasting such an event, however, proved monumental. Nevertheless, KTLA–who had “broken” the story only a year earlier–was more than up for the challenge. Klaus Landsberg and his team established a 300-mile microwave system over a chain of mountain peaks between the testing ground and Los Angeles, the longest ever attempted by a television station at the time. Six cameras would cover the event, which would then be simulcast on the major networks.
Before sunrise on April 22, 1952, a caravan of journalists traveled from Las Vegas to the nuclear testing ground at Yucca Flat. On a rugged collection of rocks just ten miles from ground zero–dubbed “News Nob”–hundreds of journalists, photographers, and broadcasters took out notebooks and set up cameras, preparing for “Operation Big Shot.” At just before 9:30 AM, 9:30 a.m. a B-50 bomber released a 33-kiloton bomb, more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from 30,000 feet above their heads.
United Press International’s Hugh Baille described the ensuing flash as if “hell burst from the skies.” Gene Sherman of the Los Angeles Times called the shock wave “the lash of an invisible giant whip” and described a “weirdly, devastatingly beautiful white cloud [that] rose then from a detached white stalk. It churned with purple, yellow, and red.”
Viewers at home, however, saw none of this.
In the era of black and white televisions, millions of Americans saw not a cloud of purple, yellow, and red. They didn’t even see a flash. The blast was intense it temporarily blinded the camera, resulting in an optical malfunction in which the audience saw a tiny pinpoint of white light in a screen full of darkness. In addition, “the power supply at News Nob failed less than 15 minutes before the blast, knocking the closet cameras out of service. As a result, a more remote camera on Mount Charleston, 40 miles away from the Yucca Flat, captured the blast until power was finally restored and the News Nob cameras turned on to give viewers a closer look as the mushroom cloud blossomed. Normal programming was resumed before the all-clear was given and paratroopers jumped from planes and soldiers emerged from the trenches to simulate a battle in ‘ground zero.'” (History)
The U.S. Government’s “atomic open house,” at least according to most viewers and, later, Billboard magazine, was a dud.
But rather than cause Americans to lose interest, the broadcast only seemed to heighten it. Over 35 million people tuned in to watch, and the Yucca Flats explosion of April 22 became the first of many televised explosions over the next several years, including the infamous and chilling “Annie” test of March 1953, in which millions of Americans were able to witness the effects a 16-kiloton nuclear explosion upon a “typical American town” built in Yucca Flats for the experiment.
The age of the atomic bomb was here. And thanks in part to television, people were able to see firsthand that it wasn’t necessarily a great thing.