extract from Brighter than a Thousand Suns by Robert Jungk
By two o'clock in the morning, all those taking part in the experiment where in their places. They were assembled in the Base Camp, some ten miles from Point Zero where there stood the high scaffolding on which the new, still untested weapon had been placed -- the bomb on which they had been working for the last two years and had now finally brought to completion. They tried on the dark glasses with which they had been provided and smeared their faces, by artificial light, with anti-sunburn cream. They could hear dance music from the loudspeakers distributed throughout the area. From time to time the music was interrupted with the news of the progress of the preparations. It had been arranged that the shot should take place at 4 a.m.But the bad weather rendered a postponement necessary.
At the control point, slightly over five and a half miles from the scaffolding, Oppenheimer and Groves conferred about whether the test should be put off altogether. Groves reports : "During most of the time, we were strolling about in the dark, outside the control building, looking up at the stars. We kept assuring each other that either one or both of the two stars visible had grown brighter." After consultation with the meteorological experts it was eventually decided to explode the experimental bomb at 5:30 a.m.
At ten minutes past five, Oppenheimer's deputy, the atomic physicist, Saul K. Allison, one of the twenty people in the control room, began to send out time signals. At about the same time Groves, who had by then left the control point and had returnded to the Base Camp, something over four miles further back, was giving the scientific personnel waiting at the Camp their last instructions. They went to put on their sun-glasses and lie down on their faces with their heads turned away. For it was considered practically certain that anyone who tried to observe the flames with the naked eye would be blinded.
During the ensuing period of waiting, which seemed an eternity, hardly a word was spoken. Everything was giving free play to his thoughts. But so far as those who have been asked can remember, these thoughts were not apocalyptic. Most of the people concerned, it appears, were trying to work out how long it would be before they could shift their uncomfortable position and obtain some kind of view of the spectacle awaited. Fermi, experimental-minded as ever, was holding scraps of paper with which he meant to gauge the air pressure and thereby estimate the strength of the explosion the moment it occured. Frisch was intent on memorising the phenomena as precisely as possible, without allowing either excitement or preconceived notions to interfere with his faculty of perception. Groves was wondering for the hundredth time whether he had taken every possible step to ensure rapid evacuation of a disaster. Oppenheimer oscillated between fears that the experiment would fail and fears that it would succeed.
Then everything happened faster than it could be understood. No one saw the first flash of the atomic fire itself. It was only possible to see its dazzling white reflection in the sky and on the hill. Those who then ventured to turn their heads percieved a bright ball of flame, growing steadily larger and larger. "Good God, I believe that the long haired boys have lost control !" a senior officer shouted. Carlson Mak, one of the most brilliant members of the theoretical division, actually thought -- though his intelligence told him the thing was impossible -- that the ball would fire would never stop growing till it had enveloped all heaven and earth. At the moment everyone forgot what he had intended to do.
Groves writes : "Some of the men in their excitement, having had three years to get ready for it, at the last minute forgot those welders' helmets and stumbled out of the cars where they were sitting. They were distinctly blinded for two to three seconds. In that time they lost the view of what they had been waiting for over three years to see."
People were transfixed at the power of the explosion. Oppenheimer was clinging to one of the uprights in the control room. A passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred epic of the Hindus, flashed into his mind : If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One ---
Yet, when the sinister and gigantic cloud rose up in the far distance over Point Zero, he was reminded of another line from the same source : I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.
Sri Krishna, the Exalted One, lord of the fate of mortals, had uttered the phrase. But Robert Oppenheimer was only a man, into whose hands, a far too mighty instrument of power had been given.
[pages 182 - 183]