“This is my first car bomb!” I say excitedly to the young, blond boy standing to my left. His cornflower blue eyes widen and he replies, “This is my first any kind of bomb!” We smile at each other—big, giddy, childish grins of the sort that can only come from blowing something up. We're in a shelter 2,500 feet away from a test pad at New Mexico Tech's Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC) in Socorro. Sitting on that seemingly far away test pad is a battered and decrepit Ram truck peppered with splotches of rust and 300 pounds of ammonium nitrate plus two neon green explosive boosters lying in the truck bed. The ammonium nitrate is a commercial explosive and takes the form of six brown paper sacks of tiny white pearls. A school bus of kids, a van of local journalists and I are minutes away from witnessing the detonation of a car bomb as part of an education and media day—apparently Tech no longer wants to be the state's “best kept secret.”
Earlier in the day, we learned about the type of work that Tech and EMRTC perform for both the government and commercial enterprises. While Tech has a lot to do with education, being one of the top universities in the US—particularly for their engineering program—EMRTC offers a range of services from ballistics, ordinance and curtain wall reaction testing to computer simulations to training for first responders, SEAL teams and Special Ops forces. The condensed version is that they “serve national interests” through research, development, testing, evaluation and training, as well as acting as the nation's only university to do testing of such a magnitude. The main question they seek to answer is: What are the effects of new mathematical and technological threats on people and national assets? So while this is all very serious scientific stuff, it also happens to be a great excuse to rain destruction in the mountains—a lot. According to a Tech staff member, you can pretty much set your watch by the regular explosions in the mountains just west of Socorro.
When we were young, my cousins and I used to love blowing up anything we could get our hands on with red M-80s and strings of Black Cats, so this sounds like a blast (get it? haha), but one EMRTC employee says that after a while, the explosions are just another day at work. The bearded journalist next to me, just as excited as the children, dismisses such apathy, muttering, “What the hell am I doing in journalism when I could be doing this?”—he nods toward the soon-
A ring of gray dust ripples out from the test site and thick grey smoke mushrooms up, boiling hundreds of feet into the air. It seems too quiet, then I hear a sharp crack and the drumming of thunder barreling up toward the shelter. The shock wave roars through us—taking my breath away and making my ears pop. The bearded journalist next to me barks out a surprised curse word.
A call goes out for quiet, “Stand by for count! Five! Four ...” We all stare out the tiny, thick glass windows, and I feel a nudge of surrealist disappointment that I'm not actually watching the real thing—rather, I'm watching a reflection of a reflection of the real thing. I'm looking at a mirror that blocks my view in case of rogue debris. Clearly this precaution is not for nothing as I note a few cracks and scratches in the large squares of glass. The countdown continues, and we all chant the numbers, staring intensely at the tiny speck that is our vehicular victim. “Three! Two! One!” We see the explosion first, a fiery golden ball of energy that is gone in a flash, then everything seems to slow down.
A ring of gray dust ripples out from the test site and thick grey smoke mushrooms up, boiling hundreds of feet into the air. It seems too quiet, then I hear a sharp crack and the drumming of thunder barreling up toward the shelter. The shock wave roars through us—taking my breath away and making my ears pop. The bearded journalist next to me barks out a surprised curse word. The kids scream. Then it's over, and all that's left is a quickly dissipating nebula of haze. On the test pad, I expect to see burning wreckage, but there is nothing. Lying in the dirt are a few larger chunks of the retired truck, but that's it. I feel oddly empty now that it's over, but I imagine the cells in my body crackling and sparking as chaotic energy bounces off the cell walls.
The media van trundles back down to the test pad and the full effect is now visible. As soon as I step out of the van, I note the change in the earth beneath my feet. There is a fluffy layer of soft, powdery dirt, and my footprints stand out on the newly settled ground. The buzz of cicadas drones in my ears. I take in the particles of twisted metal entrails that are strewn about, reaching 200-300 feet into the surrounding hills. A shallow crater testifies to where the truck once was, and 20 feet away from it is all that remains—a modern sculpture, a pretzel of pipes, an axle and the engine block. I realize how silly the action movies are with beefy heroes who never turn back to look at explosions.
More importantly, I realize how very far removed my experience is from the lives of people in war-torn areas the world over, where bombs like this go off all the time, with no safety bunkers or mandatory 2,500-foot boundaries. There are crumbling cities in Syria and Iraq where car bombs elicit fear in children, not excitement. Staring out at the shrapnel littering the dirt, I feel an unnerving mixture of sadness and gratitude, because about 7,000 miles away, someone else in the Middle East is probably looking at the same view, but for a whole different reason.
This homeland sure isn't perfect, but I just got to witness the awesome destructive powers of a bomb, the study of which will be used to save lives rather than demolish. In researching air blasts from explosions, EMRTC is creating a generic curtain wall to protect embassies and the lives of those who are working to spread peace and cultural understanding. In a true show of better living through chemistry, they are creating paints that will bolster substandard buildings in foreign countries so as to withstand the pressure of bombs without crumbling and killing those within. They are preparing paramedics and police to understand bomb situations so as to both keep themselves safe and properly treat bombing injuries. On top of all that, through interaction with children on educational outreach days like this, Tech and EMRTC are constructing the dreams of future scientists in New Mexico. Now, that's the bomb!