White Sands Missile Range

In the fall of 1944, with advances in American missile development, the Army's Ordnance Department and California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed a land range where missiles could be launched and recovered for further study. Ideally, the site needed to be within the continental United States covering uninhabited terrain with extensive level regions. Surrounding hills were required for observation. Constant clear skies were needed to facilitate uninterrupted testing. The War Department also wanted the site to be located near an existing Army post so that support would be available.

An Army site survey team arrived in New Mexico's Tularosa Basin in the fall of 1944. Although the potential range was not as large as the initial specifications called for, the basin met all the other criteria and was selected to become the "White Sands Proving Ground." An important factor regarding the cantonment site selection within the Tularosa Basin was the availability of well water. The site recommendation from the Army's Chief of Ordnance was approved by the Secretary of War on February 20, 1945.

Original site plans were formulated in Washington during April and May 1945, and construction began on June 25. Initially, the Army planned to use the range not more than 5 to 6 weeks during 1945 to launch only 10 to 15 long-distance projectiles. Because the facility was considered temporary, old Civilian Conservation Corps structures were transferred from Sandia base near Albuquerque. A missile assembly building, and 16- by 16-foot Dallas type hutments were built to house incoming troops.

Armed Forces Circular Number 268, dated July 13, 1945, announced that the White Sands Proving Ground had been officially activated on July 9, 1945.

Construction of launch facilities commenced on July 10, 1945, at a location approximately 6½ miles east of the Headquarters site. A blockhouse designed to withstand the impact of a rocket falling freely from an altitude of 100 miles remains and is still used.

The Navy accepted a Chief of Ordnance's offer to participate at White Sands and a Navy cantonment area was built adjacent to the Army cantonment area. On the range, the Navy built a blockhouse and launch site 2 miles east of the Army launch facility.

By this time, it was clear the military's missile effort in the Tularosa Basin would last longer than 5 to 6 weeks. On April 11, 1945, U.S. Army troops captured the German V-2 production facility in the Harz Mountains. In violation of Allied agreements regarding the disposition of Axis weapons, the Ordnance Department managed to extract enough components from the facility to assemble 100 V-2s. In August 1945, with 300 freight cars en route loaded with V-2 component parts, activity at White Sands was assured.

Important participants in that near-term activity would be many of the German scientists and engineers who had designed those V-2 components. Volunteering to come to America under what would be eventually known as "Operation PAPERCLIP," a team led by Dr. Wernher von Braun, assembled at Fort Bliss, Texas, in early 1946 to assist with the various missile projects ongoing at White Sands. While the Germans were in transit, American scientists and engineers forged ahead.

At 1000 hours, September 26, 1945, a Tiny Tim rocket became the first projectile launched at the Proving Ground. The test determined the suitability of the Navy- developed Tiny Tim to serve as a booster to the WAC Corporal missile that was being designed by Army Ordnance/Caltech ORDCIT project.

After additional test launchings of Tiny Tim/partial WAC Corporal variants, the first full WAC Corporal-A lifted off on October 11, 1945; another was launched the next day. Both rockets attained an altitude of 235,000 feet. Additional launchings of WAC-As continued through December 3, 1946.

Eventually, the missile evolved into the Corporal E, a projectile weighing 10,000 pounds with a planned range of 75 miles. Confidence in this missile increased as testing proceeded from 1947 through 1951 and allowed the Army to add this new weapon to its arsenal.

Although White Sands played an important role in fielding the American-designed and -built Corporal, the missile range actually received most of its notoriety because of the firing of V-2 rockets and the presence of German scientists. Unlike the Corporal program, the V-2 program was geared toward developing flying laboratories. Participants in various experimental flights included the Naval Research Laboratory, Army Ground Forces, Air Materiel Command, Army Signal Corps, Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Princeton, University of Michigan, and Caltech.

Before large missile launch operations could commence, rocket engine test facilities were needed to evaluate various designs. The original test stand, built in 1946 under the supervision of German Operation PAPERCLIP scientists, was capable of withstanding units producing 100,000 pounds of thrust. The stand had an outrigging that could accommodate smaller rockets with thrusts of up to 20,000 pounds.

The first V-2 test firing occurred on March 15, 1946. The first liftoff occurred a month later on April 16th, and proved erratic-the flight was terminated 19 seconds after launch. As the program progressed into 1952, there were additional failures. Perhaps the most notable fouled flight occurred on May 29, 1947, when a modified V-2 veered in the opposite direction and landed near Juarez, Mexico.

Yet the V-2 program gave American scientists and engineers valuable experience in handling larger rockets and much knowledge about the upper atmosphere. Biological experiments involving test animals laid the groundwork for future manned flight. "Bumper" flights, in which a WAC Corporal would be launched from the nose cone of a V-2 at a specific altitude, gave Americans experience with rocket staging. Lessons learned from the 67 V-2 firings at White Sands found applications in future missile programs.

While making important contributions at White Sands, the German "Paperclippers" frankly were underutilized. This situation was rectified in 1950, with the establishment of the Army Ordnance Center at Huntsville, Alabama. There, von Braun and his team designed the rocket that carried America's first satellite into space.

As missile testing activities at White Sands expanded, so did the base's infrastructure. By April 30, 1949, the technical and supporting facilities were valued at nearly $15 million.

By 1954, additional test stands included another 100,000-pound thrust capable facility, as well as a 300,000-pound facility and a 500,000-pound facility. Protective measures to guard the testing engineers at these facilities were extensive. Still, there was danger involved as demonstrated on September 30, 1955, when a test of a Nike Hercules prototype liquid propulsion system triggered a devastating explosion that caved in the wall of the reinforced concrete control room, killing one and injuring five.

Extensive laboratories were constructed to support preflight testing of various missile components. For example, specially designed chambers allowed for the creation of environments ranging from severe heat to subfreezing temperatures. Throughout the Cold War, these laboratories received extensive modernizations, as emerging technologies provided new testing capabilities.

Originally, individuals from the Ballistics Research Laboratory (BRL) at the Aberdeen Proving Ground came to White Sands to monitor flights and then went to Maryland to analyze test data. However, BRL quickly determined that a permanent "annex" was needed at White Sands, and in the late 194Os, approximately 40 BRL employees found themselves relocated to the southwest and having responsibilities for developing and operating the range instrumentation and reducing the data. In 1952, the "BRL-White Sands Annex" became part of an organization known as the Flight Demonstration Laboratory (FDL). FDL eventually evolved into what became known in 1966 as National Range Operations.

Working with BRL and its successor organizations, the Army Signal Corps played an important role in providing range communication and data transmission systems as well as radar, electronic, pictorial, meteorological, and signal maintenance support to the range. Over the years the Corps has accumulated maintenance responsibilities for 1,500 precisely surveyed instrumentation sites that made White Sands the most sophisticated and heavily instrumented geographical testing area in the world.

Additional Army missile projects that underwent research and testing at White Sands in the early years included Hermes, Loki, Nike, Honest John, Lacrosse, and Hawk. The Navy also took advantage of the range to launch numerous prototypes for its evolving missile program.

Based out of nearby Holloman AFB, the Air Force used White Sand facilities to evaluate Convair's MX-774 project, Northrop's MX-775 project (Snark), as well as numerous short-range tactical missiles.

Throughout the decades, the three military services as well as other government agencies and private contractors have used the range's facilities for testing and evaluating numerous projects. For example, White Sands has played important roles in the development and testing of systems for ballistic missile defense. Between 1945 and 1990, the range had tested over 1,000 weapon and space systems. Physical assets at White Sands in 1990 were then estimated to be worth $4 billion.

Seeking a location to test an Apollo propulsion system in the early 1960s NASA received DOD approval to build what was initially called the Propulsion System Development Facility. With sites to the north of U.S. 70 in the western Tularosa Basin, the facility's primary mission was (and still is) to develop, qualify, and test the limits of spacecraft propulsion systems. Renamed White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) in 1965, the facility had by 1991 tested more than 325 rocket engines by conducting over 2.2 million firings. Some of this work supported military projects such as the ABM program and Navy solid rocket exhaust studies.

In 1995, White Sands remained an Army-operated range. As part of the Army's Test and Evaluation Command under the Army Materiel Command, the range provides test facilities for organizations within and outside of the Department of Defense.

White Sands hosts several missile- and nonmissile-related historic properties. Missile-related historic properties include the Army blockhouse and V-2 gantry crane at Launch Complex 33 (Category I); the 100,000-pound and 500,000-pound rocket test stands (Category II); the Navy blockhouse, launch towers, and USS Desert Ship at Launch Complex 35; the V-2 Assembly Building 1538; and the Propulsion Unit Calibration Stand Blockhouse.