How Nuclear Weapons Tests Were Named

How test names were chosen

By Julie Miller | October 10, 2023

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What do Galileo, Husky Pup, Turquoise, and Barracuda have in common? They are names of nuclear weapons tests conducted at what is now called the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS). Over 1,000 U.S. nuclear tests were conducted at various sites between 1945 and 1992, when explosive testing ended. Each of the tests was inaugurated with a name, as documented in the Lab’s vast weapons test collections housed in the National Security Research Center (NSRC).

Nuclear weapons test names were assigned to protect classified information about nuclear weapons and maintain security. This has been true from the beginning with Trinity, the first atomic bomb test in 1945. Lab Director J. Robert Oppenheimer later said the test name may have been inspired by his love of poetry.

Weapons tests were named differently depending on which government organization sponsored the test. Initial test names came from the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet, which was developed in 1941 and used by all branches of the U.S. military to improve radio communications. It was referred to as the Able Baker alphabet:

Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-ray, Yoke, Zebra

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Able was the first weapons test following the combat deployment of the Los Alamos–created Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs, as the no-longer-secret lab transitioned into an era of weapons testing.

As the United States, and in particular the Lab, entered into a post–World War II testing period, nuclear weapons tests were named in alphabetical order for each operation series, beginning with the Crossroads Able test on July 1, 1946, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.

To avoid duplication of test names, the Able Baker alphabet was no longer used after 1952.

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Ron Cosimi, Los Alamos test director from 1988–1998, chose names for tests sponsored by the Lab at that time. They included the last explosive tests and the beginning of the subcritical tests that formed the foundation for the contemporary Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Since about 1973, the 112 tests co-sponsored by the Department of Defense (DoD) were named by the Code Word, Nickname, and Exercise Term (NICKA) system. The NICKA formula required a two-word name in which the first two letters of the first word (Di, Hu, Hy, or Mi) were preassigned to various DoD agencies. For example, the second word of the first test started with “A,” the second word of the second test started with “B,” and so on. As such, the DoD-sponsored tests had names like Diamond Ace, Husky Pup, Hybla Gold, and Minty Delight.

According to publications from the DoD, Department of Energy (DOE), and their predecessor organizations, they sponsored weapons tests for 46 years. The purpose of the tests was to advance weapons design, determine weapons effects, and verify weapons safety. Though the overall weapons testing program was collaborative, it was ultimately overseen by the president of the United States.

The DOE did not have a formal naming system like the DoD. The national laboratories chose the names. Often, a test series contained test names that were categorically related, such as New Mexico counties (Socorro, Rio Arriba, De Baca) and fish species (Tuna, Bonefish, Pike). Other sources of inspiration included famous scientists (Newton, Galileo, Pascal), colors (Purple, Chartreuse, Sienna), sailing terms (Jib, Mast, Keel), and birds (Wagtail, Merlin, Tern).

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The Galileo test on September 2, 1957, was part of the Operation Plumbbob series.

Ron Cosimi remembers

Ron Cosimi, Los Alamos test director from 1988 to 1998, chose names for tests sponsored by the Lab during that time. 

“If [the Lab] was planning to run 10 tests in a fiscal year, I would choose 10 names of Texas cities, for example,” Cosimi said, adding that this was his favorite category because he enjoyed creating logos for the Texas city names, which included Abilene, Laredo, and Waco. “I named about 30 tests and experiments and was responsible for about 100 logos for tests.”

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Logo patch for the Vaughn test, conducted on March 15, 1985, which was part of the Operation Grenadier test series.

“I enjoyed picking names since that gave me a chance to indulge in my creative side when I had to come up with a logo. Sometimes we ran out of names when additional tests were added, then I would choose previously unused names,” Cosimi said, pointing to the 1992 Divider test, the name of which came from an old category of tools and implements.

“After I retired,” Cosimi said, “my successors used movie names and then branched off into many names, randomly chosen—even some names of family members.” 

“Camaraderie is the number one reason I supported the practice [of creating patches and logos],” Cosimi said. “There always was an interschool rivalry between the labs at NTS [Nevada Test Site, now NNSS], and the teams from Los Alamos proudly wore their caps with the event they were working on.”

“The Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, probably has most of the patches/logos,” Cosimi said. He and others have donated patches there. The NSRC collections also contain dozens of test logos and patches.

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Retired LANL test director Ron Cosimi’s jacket and hats showing test logos. Logos were designed for many tests and made into patches that could be applied to clothing. (Photo courtesy of Ron Cosimi.)

John Hopkins remembers

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NSRC senior historian Alan Carr (right) discusses artifacts preserved in the National Security Research Center, including patches from various nuclear tests, with retired test director Ron Cosimi (center) and former associate director John Hopkins (left).

“The Lab’s Testing (J) Division was responsible for Lab-sponsored nuclear tests, and this included the selection of their names,” said John Hopkins, who worked at the Lab beginning in 1960 as a nuclear physicist and retired 34 years later as the associate director responsible for the nuclear weapons program.

Hopkins remarked that, often, members of J Division would volunteer a list of names. When Hopkins was the division leader, he submitted his then-teenage daughter Anna’s proposed list of games of skill and chance to the DOE Division of Military Application in Washington, DC, for approval as test name suggestions. The list included Rummy, Chess, and Baseball, which were accepted and appeared in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Hopkins participated in 170 nuclear tests, including five atmospheric tests, during his career.

Byron Ristvet remembers

At one time, there was a “Name a nuke” suggestion box in the Albuquerque DNA facility hallway, recalled Byron Ristvet, a retired DoD scientist. The suggestion box provided the starting preassigned and alphabetical letters to be used for an upcoming test. “Some of the suggestions were actually used for tests,” Ristvet said.

Tom Kunkle remembers

Retired weapons scientist Tom Kunkle recalls one test that was named twice.

“The initial nickname for the 24 September 1981 test was ‘Craps,’ a name from the list of games of skill and chance from Anna Hopkins. The nickname was [deemed] unacceptable. The powers that be didn’t want us [shooting] craps at the test site,” said Kunkle. “So the test was renamed to Cernada [little cinder] from the most recent list of New Mexico place names. I hoped at the time that someone in Russia wasted a lot of brain sugar wondering if the nickname had anything to do with the nuclear device."