Sleeping Beauty Awakens

By the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, now known as Los Alamos National Laboratory. This article was originally printed in the May 1967 edition of “The Atom.”
Edited by Virginia S. Lees.
Photography by Bill Jack Rodgers and Jack Glasco.
Edited for this website by Jenn Jett, Museum Specialist.
Reproduced with permission.

You can watch the video of Operation Sleeping Beauty on the WSMR Museum Youtube channel.

Unlike Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tale, the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory’s (LASL) Sleeping Beauty awoke with a thunderous roar, in a cloud of dust that could be seen for miles. She was much the worse for the experience, but LASL men had planned it that way – for Sleeping Beauty was a 21-year-old failure, resting in an exclusive “kingdom.”

LASL’s Sleeping Beauty was an experiment on the design of an alpha-n initiator – the first in a series of such tests. Equipment was located in an underground bunker at Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert, some 250 miles south of Los Alamos – and only 1,600 feet from ground zero of a spectacular success, the world’s first nuclear explosion. But Sleeping Beauty did not involve the use of fissionable material – and she was an embarrassing failure.

The initiator test misfired on 08 September 1946 and promptly got the name “Sleeping Beauty” when it was decided, because of the possible hazards involved and the problems of digging out a 40-foot shaft, not to attempt to complete the experiment. Because the test site was in a closed area no longer in use, it was felt it was safe to leave the explosives where they were – in the reinforced concrete bunker covered by a 40-foot mound of dirt. One similar test was later conducted successfully in another bunker several hundred yards away, and then the series of experiments was moved to Los Alamos after a suitable test area, TA-33, had been prepared. Sleeping Beauty was the only failure.

The bunker remained untouched for more than 20 years. Then, early this year, it was decided to detonate the remaining high explosives and level off the mound of dirt over the bunker. In addition, two other bunkers would be leveled, and the entire area of Trinity Site would be monitored and cleared of any hazardous material. This decision was based primarily on the possibility that Trinity Site, where Los Alamos scientists tested the world’s first atomic bomb on 16 July 1945, may soon be designated a national historic site.

Editor’s note: The National Park Service added Trinity Site to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 and designated it as a National Historic Landmark in 1975.

(Foreground) Shaft leading straight down to Sleeping Beauty bunker. Lava monument in background marks ground zero at Trinity Site.
Looking down shaft to Sleeping Beauty bunker, 40 feet below.

The plan for destroying Sleeping Beauty called for a cautious approach. Although scientists in charge of the original test had several theories about the reasons for its failure, they were not absolutely certain what had occurred in the bunker, nor was there any certainty about what had happened to the materials in the intervening 21 years.

In mid-March, several LASL men from the engineering department and health division, along with heavy equipment operators from the Zia company, began work at Trinity Site, which is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

The first LASL contingent included Wes Trak, Eng-1; Clarence Courtright, H-3; Charles Blackwell, Jerry Eagan, Jack Richard, and Fred Fey, all H-1. Zia equipment operators Andrew Red Jackson, Fes Gentry, and Wayne Wells began cutting into the deep mound of dirt covering the bunker. Fighting the desert dust, which at times cut visibility almost to zero, they bulldozed their way down to the floor level of the octagonal bunker, exposing the door and front surface and a portion of the roof.

See below for descriptions of LASL offices.

Easter Monday at Trinity Site saw the LASL contingent increase. This was the day set for the “unveiling” of Sleeping Beauty, when the door to the bunker would be opened.

Early that morning, Trask and Phil Reinig, engineering department head, pushed a periscope through one of the bunker’s air vents to try to discover whether anything was blocking the door. But all that was visible was what appeared to be a crumpled sheet of copper and a bit of something white. There was still no certainty of the situation inside.

Two LASL scientists who had worked on the original Sleeping Beauty test – Don MacMillan, now N-1 group leader, and Robert Lanter, now W-3 – arrived to watch operations and see what had actually occurred in that bunker nearly 21 years ago. They had been in the old M-3 group which conducted the series of initiator tests. Other members of the test group who are still with the Laboratory include Henry Filip, Jim Runyon and Fred Lujan, N-1; Art Sayer, W-4; and Jim Greenwood, SD-1.

LASL Director Norris Bradbury and Technical Associate Director Raemer Schreiber were also among the dusty, windblown group who watched on Easter Monday as Zia ironworkers gingerly placed hydraulic jacks against the heavy bunker door.

With a bulldozer blade bracing one end, Louis Rojas, Otis Sissel, and Art Sena placed three jacks against the door to bend the metal keepers and moved off to one side to operate the jacks remotely.

Finally, the big door began to open. H-1 personnel checked the doorway with monitoring equipment. There seemed to be no problems. The door was opened about two feet, and air sampling and radiation monitoring equipment was placed inside. The bunker seemed safe to enter.

Inside, things were very well preserved and much the way scientists had left them 21 years before, with one exception, which provided the answer to what had caused the failure.

The small container of high explosive remained intact, still surrounded by chains about the high explosives. There were to have been used to record neutrons emitted by the initiator in the first few microseconds after the detonation. A broken light fixture found on the floor was a puzzle until MacMillan recalled that someone had left it in the bunker in the last-minute rush to get on with the rest of the test, for there had been problems in some of the equipment, and it was nearly midnight when the test was finally fired. Group leader Harry Fullbright left immediately afterward for a teaching assignment after postponing his departure from the Laboratory through several postponements of the test. The white object seen through the periscope turned out to be an ordinary cheesecloth dust rag.

But the clue to what had gone wrong was the object that, through the periscope, had appeared to be crumpled copper. This was the remains of the high voltage box that contained electrical equipment, including a firing switch operated by a small explosive charge. The fact that the box had been blown apart by this small charge but that the principal experimental equipment had remained intact meant that the explosive-operated switch had failed in some way to set off the main explosive charge, Macmillan said.

Finally inside the bunker, this copper box revealed the secret of Sleeping Beauty’s failure. This crumpled copper is the remains of the high voltage box that contained electrical equipment, including a firing switch operated by a small explosive charge. The fact that the box had been blown apart by this small charge but that the principal experimental equipment had remained intact meant that the explosive-operated switch had failed in some way to set off the main explosive charge, according to Don MacMillan, a member of the group that conducted the initiator tests. Sleeping Beauty was the only failure of the two tests conducted at Trinity Site and others that were conducted later at LASL.

The following day was set for Sleeping Beauty’s “awakening,” and three explosives experts arrived from Los Alamos to Join the LASL contingent. Robert Drake, assistant GMX division leader, Mike Clancy, and Manuel Urizar, both GMX-2, strung detonator cords across the desert from the bunker to a safe firing location. Inside the bunker they placed 100 pounds of high explosive – enough to awaken almost anything from a 21-year nap.

Everyone retreated to a safe distance, out of the range of flying debris. The rumbling of Sleeping Beauty’s “alarm clock” reverberated across the desert, jolting a jackrabbit out of its morning sleep.

When the dust had settled, the handful of on-lookers, now almost knee-deep in the loosened surface of the desert, converged on the remains of Sleeping Beauty. Gnarled steel rods and jagged chunks of concrete were all that was left. Almost immediately, the heavy equipment operators climbed on their bulldozers and began filling in the hole.

At last, Sleeping Beauty could be termed a success.

The following office organizations are referenced in this article. Some of these offices have been redesignated, reassigned, or disbanded since 1967.
ENG-1, Engineering Section
GMX-1, Radiography
GMX-2, Explosive Spectroscopy
H-1, Radiologic Safety
H-3, Occupational Safety
M-3, Focused Experiments
N-1, Nuclear Section
SD-1, Beryllium Shop
W-3, Weapons Systems Engineering
W-4, Weapons Scaling

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to the archives and publications staff at Los Alamos National Laboratory for granting the WSMR Museum the permission to reproduce this article.

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