We have all heard about the Manhattan Project, but in fact, we still ignore a lot of important details about this very well-kept secret on a major research which started the nuclear age, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki as its first victims. Let’s summarize some of this project’s milestones.
In 1939, the great physicist Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt about the possibility of nuclear fission reactions in a large mass of uranium and warned him about Germany’s interest in the deadly atomic bombs that could result from the investigation of this energy for military purposes. But he never became part of the project, nor were the scientists working on it allowed to consult him! However, President Wilson paid attention to Einstein’s warnings and approved the atomic bomb program on October 9, 1941. By 1945, only a few dozen people knew the full significance of the Manhattan project. Britain was also involved, supplying crucial expertise.
In four-year time, the project was completed, taking its name after the Manhattan Engineering District, thus becoming known as the Manhattan Project, having Robert Oppenheimer as scientific director. The government secretly acquired land in Tennessee, building a whole functional “secret” city for the first 3,000 workers. It was called Oak Ridge and it is a tourist attraction today. The employees were strictly instructed not to talk about their jobs, the authorities threatening to severely punish anyone who disclosed secrets. They ”worked like moles in the dark”, as Life magazine stated. All in all, the project cost almost US $2 billion and it employed at least 130,000 people.
The scientists worked at the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico, and the testing site was in Jornada del Muerto desert, but the project was conducted at many sites across the U.S. and Canada.
Los Alamos was a top secret, very remote unmarked place, hidden behind layers of lies. The name itself was highly-classified and couldn’t be found on any regular map.
As a matter of fact, the Los Alamos scientists worked on two metals, thus giving birth to “Little boy” – the bomb made of uranium-235, a gun-shaped fission weapon which exploded Hiroshima, taking 265,000 lives. The second one was “Fat Man”, made of 14-pound mass of plutonium, a lot more powerful than the “Little Boy.” Detonated over Nagasaki, it claimed more than 40,000 lives, but in both cities the high radiations level made hundreds of thousands of subsequent victims.
But the lab where the experiments were performed seems to have been vulnerable too, as two scientists, Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin died because of radiation poisoning. The plutonium bomb core with which they were working was called ”demon core” and was later used in test explosions.
Besides Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project was identified with the engineering and organizational management expert General Leslie Groves.
One needs to say that when the bombs were ready, most of the scientists involved thought they were just meant to demonstrate America’s power and to determine Japan to surrender. They didn’t see the bombs as active weapons. Unfortunately, this opinion was not shared by Oppenheimer and Groves, who believed that the bombs should be used to inflict maximum damage so that people could see the power and effects of atomic weapons and never want to use them again. The rest is history…