If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week we head to the home of Carlsbad Caverns, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and an entrepreneurial chemistry teacher dying of lung cancer—New Mexico.
THE LARGEST WOODEN STRUCTURE IN THE WORLD
New Mexico and the military have a long history together. For example, it was in the desert of the White Sands Proving Ground that America tested the first nuclear weapon in 1945. In addition, during the Cold War, Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque was used to test the effects of a nuclear explosion’s electromagnetic pulse (EMP) on large-scale aircraft like the B-52 Bomber. An EMP can short out electronics, and exceptionally high energy pulses can even cause physical damage to a plane; neither of which you want to have happen while in flight. To perform these tests, ATLAS (Air Force Weapons Laboratory Transmission-Line Aircraft Simulator) was constructed, starting in 1972.
ATLAS was built inside a natural landscape depression 600 feet across and 120 feet deep. A ramp 400 feet long by 50 feet wide led to test stand (115 feet above the depression floor) that measured 200 feet by 200 feet. On the other side of the platform was the transmission “wedge,” spanning 250-feet long at a height of 240-feet. To test an aircraft, it was towed across the ramp to the large platform. Then, two large pulsers generated 200,000,000,000 watts of electricity, which was then discharged down transmission lines running on both sides of the platform, to a 185-foot terminating tower at the ramp entrance, forming a teardrop of electricity that would pass over the aircraft.
The ramp and platform—also known as the “Trestle” because it was inspired by a railroad bridge—had to be constructed out of wood because metal beams would skew the test results. However, this also meant that the structure had to be put together without using nails or bolts. So the entire 1000-foot long, 12-story high structure was pieced together using glue, laminated wood and fiberglass pegs. At 6.4 million board feet, it is officially the largest wooden structure in the world.
Although the site cost $60 million to build, the ATLAS was only operational from 1980 to 1991. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, plus the advent of more cost effective computer simulations for EMP testing, ATLAS simply became a relic of a bygone era. The project was shuttered so quickly that it’s been said there are still half-eaten sandwiches and cups of coffee sitting in the break room. Unfortunately, without proper maintenance for the last 25 years, the Trestle is beginning to dry out. This, coupled with the fact that the automatic sprinkler system was also shut off when the site closed, makes many worry that it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing goes up in flames.
To prevent this type of catastrophe, the ATLAS has been deemed eligible to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. This would provide federal funds to care for the site and preserve it for future generations. Of course the site is still located on a top secret military base, and is currently available to VIPs on an invite-only basis, so the closest you’ll be able to get is seeing it from the air if you fly into Albuquerque International Sunport.
Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state? Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States!
Read all of the entries in our Strange States series here.