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Establishment of Sandia National Laboratory, 1945

By Michael Ann Sullivan

Sandia National Laboratory was originally the engineering division (called Z-division) of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the central laboratory of the top-secret Manhattan Project during WWII. The Manhattan Project scientists developed an atomic bomb which was deployed against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. After the war, J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of Los Alamos, created and moved Z-division to Sandia Base, west of Kirtland Airfield in Albuquerque, to be closer to transportation and alleviate crowded conditions on the mesa. Sandia Base had been the site of the former Oxnard municipal airfield. The army commandeered the airport during WWII and used it to train aircraft mechanics.

Z-division at Sandia Base consisted of four groups. Engineering produced mechanical mockups of weapons; Military Liaison trained officers to assemble weapons, developed handling and test equipment, and wrote military how-to manuals; Mechanical Test tested electronic and electromechanical components; and Field Test conducted tests on completed weapon models at the Salton Sea in California. Sandia Base also stored all completed weapons in igloos south of the runway.

After the war, the U.S. government debated who would control the new weapons devised by Manhattan Project scientists. The army argued that they should oversee atomic weapons as they were a military tool. However, the unusual nature and destructive force of atomic bombs led some to lobby for civilian control. The Atomic Energy Act, passed in 1946, created three agencies to share the administrative management of atomic development—a five-member civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the Military Liaison Committee (MLC), and the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE).

As a first order of business, David Lillianthal, the first chairman of the AEC, toured the left-over facilities of the Manhattan Project to assess the capabilities of the atomic arsenal. In 1946, the weapon production complex included Oak Ridge, Hanford, Inyokern, Rock Island Arsenal, Los Alamos, Wendover, Salton Sea, and Sandia Base. These facilities each provided a different phase of weapon design and production. Oak Ridge and Hanford produced nuclear material, Inyokern and Rock Island made high explosives and other components, Los Alamos designed the physics package, Wendover and Salton Sea were test facilities, and Sandia Base was the new production and assembly site. Lillianthal expressed shock after the tour—the atomic stockpile was virtually non-existent. He noted that completed weapons at Sandia Base could be counted on the fingers of one hand. President Truman made the development and testing of new weapons a number one priority.

The Crossroads test in the Marshall Islands initially hampered the development of SNL’s site. The Navy wished to test the effects of atomic weapons on ships at sea and the Z-division staff, along with scientists from Los Alamos, all participated in the event. The fourth and fifth atomic weapons developed by Manhattan Project scientists were deployed against the captured and unmanned Japanese fleet in the summer of 1946. The resulting explosions sunk nine vessels. Los Alamos and Sandia Base maintained skeleton crews until the summer testing was over.

After Operation Crossroads, the AEC resumed efforts to get an ordinance engineering, assembly, and production facility up and running at Sandia Base. The Army post engineer supervised construction of four new buildings. A mechanical assembly building housed a machine shop and the lab’s first environmental testing machines—a cold chamber and shake table. The other buildings housed systems development, design and fabrication of telemetry instruments, and the assembly of electrical parts.

In 1947, Paul Larsen, Z-Division’s director effected the transition of Sandia Base from an appendage of Los Alamos to its own separate laboratory within the nuclear weapons complex. Z-Division became Sandia Laboratory on April 1, 1948. By mid-year SNL boasted 1000 employees and a 25-million dollar construction campaign. The following year President Truman asked Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of AT&T, to assume managerial responsibility from the University of California for Sandia (In 1992, Lockheed Martin took over the management of Sandia National Labs.) In addition to his aggressive recruiting and construction, Larsen also instituted a successful weapon production program. Code-named the Road Department, expressing the sentiment “let’s get this show on the road,” Larsen hired 300 people within the year and increased production to two bombs a month, a pace that would provide the nation with a stockpile of weapons in a reasonable time frame.

SNL’s engineers designed all the parts of a weapon (except the high explosive and nuclear subsystem), including the casing, batteries, timers, radar fuzes, baroswitches, and firing subsystem. War-time engineers basically adapted existing military technology for use on the first atomic bombs. SNL’s job after the war was to design new and sophisticated components that would improve safety, efficiency, and reliability. Early improvements included a lighter more air streamed casing, batteries that could be charged faster, and the addition of counter-intelligence measures to radar fuzes.

In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic weapon, ahead of State Department predictions. This event fueled the U.S. effort to design and stockpile atomic weapons. SNL’s earliest innovation occurred with the development of the “wooden bomb” in the early 1950s. Early bombs needed to be charged, components installed, and fins bolted on before they were ready for delivery. The “wooden bomb” could sit in the stockpile for years without maintenance. The detonation of the first thermonuclear weapon, in 1952, a type of weapon 1000 times more destructive than atomic bombs, further increased the nuclear arms race between the two countries.

President Eisenhower, former commander of the Allied forces during WWII, promoted the use of nuclear weapons like any other strategic weapon in the military arsenal. This led to a buildup of thousands of different kinds of nuclear weapons including warheads for use on missiles, nuclear weapons for submarines, and smaller nuclear bombs for battlefield use. The bulk of the U.S. nuclear stockpile was designed and produced between 1953 and 1961. By the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, Sandia had been involved in sixty bomb and warhead applications.

SNL’s innovations during the stockpile buildup included the building block concept and laydown bombs. The building block concept was a weapon design (B28) that could be carried both externally and internally by aircraft. Eventually it became the building block for seven different weapons systems. The laydown bomb could be delivered by aircraft flying at low altitudes and detonation delayed until the plane could escape. Laydown bombs employed several new technologies including parachutes capable of slowing bomb descent and shock mitigators attached to the nose cone of the weapon. Shock mitigator designs included nose spikes, cookie cutters, and honeycombs. The nose spike impaled the ground preventing the weapon from hitting the ground. The cookie cutter blew off the nose cone exposing a design that would grab the earth. The honey comb was made of aluminum and inserted in the nose cone and absorbed the shock of impact. The parachute and shock mitigators slowed the bomb down and prevented it from detonating on impact so delivery vehicles could retreat before the explosion. Sandia also developed the Permissive Action Link which was a safety device eventually included in all stockpiled weapons to prevent their unauthorized use.

SNL scientists also provided the testing of non-nuclear components in many different environments both in the U.S. and at test sites they developed around the world. As early as 1945, Sandia tested bomb designs at the Los Lunas Range southwest of Albuquerque. In 1946, they acquired the Salton Sea Test Range from the navy. Here they built permanent instrumentation stations and temporary housing. Testing at the Salton Sea focused on high altitude drops of bomb components. Sandia made Tonopah Test Range located on Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas their permanent test site in 1960. Tonopah provided facilities for the testing of aircraft drops, rocket launches, artillery firing, and parachute development. Sandia also established a rocket-launching facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The Kauai Testing Facility on the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range has both a rail-launch and high-altitude launch for testing missile designs.

Closer to home, SNL developed Technical Area III, a test site on Kirtland Air Force Base that included a variety of equipment to simulate the possible environmental conditions a weapon might encounter. In 1954, Sandia built rocket sled tracks to crash weapons into walls at high velocity, centrifuges to spin weapons at high speed, and compressed air guns for impact testing. They added a 300-ft. drop tower in 1956. In later years they built facilities to vibrate components and subject them to extremes of heat and cold. SNL also formed groups of scientists to study blast effects and seismic activity.

Although initially conceived as a nuclear weapons laboratory, SNL weapons research has resulted in spin-off technologies and pure research that have enhanced the scientific prowess of the nation in many areas. In 1960, Sandia developed a laminar clean room that industry and the medical profession adopted for their needs. The energy crisis of the 1970s pushed Sandia into research on solar and wind technology, photo-voltaic, enhanced fossil fuel recovery, and fusion. In 1981, the Combustion Research Facility opened to researchers around the world at SNL’s California branch in Livermore. In 1990, researchers developed an advance in synthetic aperture radar that enabled the military to see through cloud cover in Desert Storm. In 2001, Sandia developed decontamination foam used to detect possible anthrax infected-mail in Washington, D.C.

Currently, Sandia National Laboratories employees 7,000 people paying over $500 million in salaries and generating over $45 million dollars in gross receipts tax to support state and local government.

Sources Used:

Furman, Necah Stewart. Sandia National Laboratories: The Postwar Decade. Albuquerque: New Mexico, 1990.

Herken, Gregg. The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War 1945-1950. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Johnson, Leland. Sandia National Laboratories: A History of Exceptional Service in the National Interest. Albuquerque: Sandia National Laboratories, 1997.

Loeber, Charles R. Building the Bombs: A History of the Nuclear Weapons Complex. Albuquerque: Sandia National Laboratories, 2002.

Ullrich, Rebecca. Sandia in the Cold War: A Statement of Context for Sandia National Laboratories of New Mexico. Albuquerque: Sandia National Laboratories, 2000.

Westwick, Peter. The National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947-1974. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.