Preserving the past

Decades of old weapons components find a home at Sandia’s Legacy Hardware Laboratory.

By Jill Gibson | April 28, 2023

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Among the many relics that visitors to Sandia’s Legacy Hardware Laboratory can see is the Navy’s first submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Polaris, pictured here circa 1964, which played a strategic role during the Cold War in the 1960s. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense Department of Defense

When employees of Sandia National Laboratories retire, clean out an office, or uncover a pallet of mysterious, unlabeled boxes, they often contact Pete Terrill. That’s because Terrill runs the Legacy Hardware Laboratory, a working laboratory of nuclear weapons components ranging from the first iterations of certain devices, including a rare version of the infamous Fat Man bomb, to parts of weapons that are in the nuclear stockpile today.

Well over six feet tall with close-cropped hair and decades of experience in the military and the nuclear enterprise, Terrill says he has found “the job of a lifetime.”

As he leads a group through the two warehouses he oversees, he enthusiastically gazes over his collection. “It’s Costco with a Q clearance,” he jokes, pointing to row after row of parts that include detonators, firing sets, and more.

News Standard Article Body
Some visitors to the Legacy Hardware Laboratory receive a commemorative “coin.” Both sides are
pictured here.

Terrill started the facility in 2013 when Sandia began cleaning out storage areas at Kirtland Air Force Base. “We still have unopened boxes,” he says, gesturing to an x-ray device he uses to peek inside the many unlabeled storage drums and boxes he receives at the facility. “Some of this stuff is still radioactive, so we have to check and take precautions,” he says.

Terrill likes to compare himself to the stars of American Pickers—the cable series featuring two men who drive around the country salvaging antiques from country barns and forgotten corners. “People give me stuff,” he says. “They find out when they retire that they can’t keep it.”

Former Sandia Vice President Gerry Yonas says when he retired from Sandia, he had the tail of a B-61 bomb in his office. “Someone had given it to me, so I wanted to take it home and put it in my yard— kind of like lawn décor,” quips Yonas. “Turns out security wouldn’t let me. I bet Pete has it now.”

Terrill is quick to point out that he isn’t running a museum. “This is a laboratory, and everyone from visiting engineers, scientists, military personnel, weapons interns, external customers—they can come here and train with the real things. They can take things apart and put them together. We have about 500 people come through here each year.”

Terrill attributes the depth and variety of devices he has accumulated to Sandia’s unique role in the nuclear enterprise. “Sandia is the integrator,” he says. “Sandia has their fingers on everything.”

And everything appears to be stored in this laboratory—the first nuclear artillery shell, earth penetrators, the first Polaris missile, and a rare 1968 “bayonet” gun weapon are stored beside each other. In between are boxes with labels such as “Little Boy Parts” and brochures once used to brief congressional staffers about new devices. Terrill knows where every item is and can share its complete history.

“There are 6,000 parts in the average nuclear weapon,” he tells a tour group. No one doubts that he can identify each part. “These weapons are very complex,” he continues. “Here people can touch them—can practice dismantling them and reassembling them, can learn to understand the function and the safety measures. We do real training with real stuff.”

But although the facility serves a highly serious purpose, Terrill doesn’t deny how much fun he has sharing his knowledge of weapons engineering and nuclear weapons history. He has grown his staff to five people and has received authorization to expand his warehouse space to accommodate his ever-growing collection, which also includes original documents, schematics, drawings and paintings of weapons, and more.

Terrill plans to keep collecting. “We haven’t found the Ark of the Covenant yet, but we do like to compare ourselves to Indiana Jones.” ★