Written by Nicholas Suarez
When it comes to weapons, one of the most important parts of the process is making sure that they work. That might seem obvious, but a weapon that doesn’t properly function is arguably more dangerous than one that does, since it could injure or kill people that were not the intended targets. But you can’t just light off a Hellfire missile in your backyard like it’s a firework; there’s rules and regulations for things like that. No – if you want to test a weapon, you need a dedicated testing ground.
Fortunately, when it comes to the United States, there’s no shortage of weapons, or the empty space needed to test them. Yet despite that abundance, most weapons for America’s armed forces get tested in one particular location, in a seemingly unremarkable desert in the state of New Mexico. This is the story of the White Sands Missile Range, the largest military installation in the United States, and America’s fireworks backyard.
Before we get started, a disclaimer: White Sands Missile Range has had several names over the years. We’re going to call it “White Sands Missile Range” for simplicity’s sake, but just know that’s not entirely accurate, depending on what year it is.
So, let’s get started. White Sands Missile Range is located in the state of New Mexico, a territory acquired by the United States in 1848 following the Mexican-American War. New Mexico didn’t become a state until six decades later in 1912, becoming the 47th American state, and the last in the continental U.S. to do so, save for Arizona. Now, you might imagine that’s because New Mexico is mostly empty, but the actual answer is because the population at the time was mostly Mexican-American. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But it is still accurate to describe New Mexico as mostly empty. Contrary to popular belief, New Mexico is not one big desert. It has grasslands, mountains, forests, and deserts. Yet the lack of attractions for people was, itself, attractive, specifically to the US government in 1942. That was the year that the United States began work on the Manhattan Project, the research and development of the first nuclear bomb.
That work had to be carried out somewhere, and doing it in the middle of a densely packed city was, understandably, not a good idea. But even for the work that didn’t involve actual nuclear material, there were problems. Secret studies on nuclear weapons were conducted at universities across the country, and that proved difficult in terms of both logistics and coordination. It was decided that the R&D needed to be centralized in a single location.
The result was the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nerve center of the Manhattan Project, built in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The site was chosen because it was isolated, providing safety from prying eyes, and also keeping the scientists away from other cities where they might offhandedly mention that they’re working on a bomb that can one-shot a city. You know, discretion. The lab itself wasn’t built in the area that would become White Sands, but the Trinity site, where the first bomb was tested, was. As such, the first weapon ever tested at this weapons range was, at the time, the most powerful weapon ever built.
Following the Trinity test, White Sands was transitioned from nuclear testing to missile testing. Part of this transition involved formalizing the area as a weapons range, and it was established as the White Sands Proving Ground in 1945. The official demarcation of the range made it the single largest military installation in the United States, covering some 3200 square miles, or nearly one-fifth of the land directly owned by the US Army. But even that massive amount of area sometimes isn’t enough – on at least two occasions, missiles being tested at White Sands have veered off course and crashed into Mexico. Nobody’s been hurt, but still, it’s probably better not to accidentally shell Mexico.
Anyway, with the range formally established, it was time to start sending rockets skyward.
Fourth of July, Every Day
The big break for America’s newest missile range came with anti-American technology. Kind of. We stretched for that one.
At the conclusion of World War II, the United States confiscated a great deal of German missile technology, including several models of the famous V-2 rocket. They also brought large numbers of German scientists to America under Operation Paperclip, including some rather enthusiastic Nazi party members. Not a great look, all things considered, but setting optics aside, some of those scientists ended up working at White Sands, particularly when the US started reverse-engineering the German missiles to create their own. The V-2 rockets had their own launch pads created, and they were reassembled from scratch and fired off for tests.
The V-2 itself was already an impressive rocket. It could launch payloads of almost 2000 pounds to ranges of up to 100 miles. That’s already quite destructive, but as the cold war began, missiles and rockets were about to go crazy. As far as military technology went, missiles were a silver bullet – relatively speaking, they were cheap, accurate, versatile, and long-range, the perfect weapon for modern conflicts. So, as the technology progressed, White Sands became the center for testing not just captured rocketry designs, but new designs, as well. Some of the more famous ones were the Nike Hercules, America’s cold war surface-to-air missile, and the Nike Zeus, an anti-ballistic missile, erm, missile. Later on, the site also tested the Patriot missile, the current generation SAM used by the American military and its allies.
It should be noted that a complete list of weapons that were tested at White Sands is difficult to come by, that is to say, impossible, since a lot of the information is classified. But, given the importance of the site, it’s probably safe to assume that any testing a missile had was done at White Sands. This would include prominent designs like the Hellfire Missile and its several variants, which do not list where they were tested in online sources, as well as the various ICBM’s in America’s nuclear arsenals. Again, we can’t say for sure they were tested there, but that’s probably the case.
But what does this testing actually look like? Well, the most obvious part of the process for testing a missile is firing it, making sure that it goes in the right direction and explodes when it’s supposed to. Remember – accidentally shelling Mexico, twice. But it also consists of a myriad of other tests, such as temperature checks. Equipment is placed in test chambers where the temperatures are lowered to an extreme degree, to see if the weapons are adversely affected. In the other direction, well, New Mexico’s hot, so they just leave it in the sun. Probably. We couldn’t confirm that.
It should also be noted that missiles aren’t usually tested all at once. Each of the parts, from the engines to the warheads to the various electronics, usually undergoes its own individual testing, usually at sites owned by the company designing the missile. So, one site might test the rocket firing, another might test the warhead, and the actual missile would be fired off at White Sands. Then, once it was confirmed that the missile worked as intended, that was that – it was good for manufacturing and usage, and the process was complete.
That’s the missile part of White Sands Missile Range covered. But White Sands, like most things military, has some civilian applications, as well. The first missiles after the V-2 rockets to be fired at White Sands were the WAC Corporal, a rocket designed to carry “weather packages” for measuring the mid to upper atmosphere. Beyond that, cameras were placed on rockets to take pictures of the Earth from altitudes that had never been reached before, and the same ballistic missiles made to hold nuclear weapons were later modified to hold satellites, space probes, and eventually, astronauts. This makes White Sands, testing ground for destructive weaponry, also the origin of America’s first forays into space exploration.
Indeed, White Sands tested parts of the Apollo Program in the early 1960s, and it was also the location where the Columbia space shuttle landed in 1982, on NASA’s third-ever space shuttle mission. It was the only time a space shuttle ever landed at White Sands, but it serves to highlight that NASA and the military have always been closely intertwined.
Aside from science, another civilian aspect to White Sands is that part of it is a national park. Interestingly, the national park is actually older than the missile range, being declared by Herbert Hoover in 1933 as a national monument. The park is located smack dab in the center of the White Sands Missile Range, which is an appropriately American approach: if you can’t build a missile range in a park, just make everything around the park a missile range. Problem solved.
Close to half of the park consists of a field of white sand dunes, composed of gypsum crystals. This is where the “White Sands” part of the whole “White Sands” such-and-such comes from. It’s the largest gypsum dunefield anywhere on earth, so it has that going for it. It is rather scenic, and the location’s been used for shooting several western films, along with, funnily enough, two Transformers movies. In 2008, the monument was even tabled as a potential World Heritage Site, but that was actually shot down by the locals, who worried it would be used as a pretext to shut down the Missile Range, which would be bad for the area’s economy. Rural communities tend to rely on military bases quite a bit.
And that’s most of what there is to say about White Sands. The largest military installation in the United States, testing its most famous weapons, and with a bonus national park located inside of it. What more could you ask for? I suppose there’s a bunch of animals, too – snakes, lizards, tortoises, things like that. Hopefully they’ve learned to keep away from the targets.