HOW IT ALL BEGAN …
In early fall 1944, as a result of America’s accelerated missile program, it became evident that a land range somewhere in the United States would be required so missiles could be test fired and recovered after flight for further study. These studies would provide data to help develop future missiles for the military.
A group of specially selected officers and civilians representing the War Department and the Corps of Engineers visited all sites designated as “possible.” One area, in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico, fit the bill. It would eventually become White Sands Proving Ground (WSPG).
In a real estate directive dated Feb. 8, 1945, the seeds for WSPG were sown. This document declared the area to be of military necessity. The majority of selected land that would make up WSMR was already under the control of the War Department. It was comprised of the Fort Bliss Antiaircraft Firing Range, Dona Ana Target Range, Castner Target Range and Alamogordo Army Air Field’s Alamogordo Bombing Range.
In addition to acreage controlled by the Army, other public domain and private lands would be added in the following years to comprise the new proving ground.
Work at the desert site began in June 1945, as buildings and roads were constructed from plans prepared two months earlier. Since the prevailing attitude was that WSMR would only be a short-term project, temporary buildings such as old Civilian Conservation Corps structures and a hangar were moved here from Sandia Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. An Army Forces circular dated July 13, 1945, officially announced the July 9 establishment of WSPG. Lt. Col. Harold R. Turner was its first commander.
In the early years, Fort Bliss was responsible for most of the administrative and supply services at WSPG. The impact area north of the main post (the Alamogordo Bombing Range) was still under the jurisdiction of the Army Air Corps.
The Army’s first launch area, now referred to as Launch Complex 33, was established 6.5 miles east of the headquarters area. To provide protection for personnel and equipment at the launch site, the Army built a reinforced concrete blockhouse. Construction of the Army blockhouse began July 10. It was followed by the addition of concrete launching pads, a wooden observation tower and a 75-foot service gantry with 2,000 feet of track.
In mid-August 1945, 300 railroad freight cars of V-2 components captured in the European theater of operations arrived in New Mexico. The Santa Fe Railroad spotted 10 cars per day in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for unloading and transport by military personnel to WSPG on the east side of the Organ Mountains.
To get an idea of the magnitude of the logistics challenge, every railroad siding from El Paso, Texas, to Belen, New Mexico, a distance of 210 miles, was full of railroad cars. The Army hired every flatbed truck in Dona Ana County to move the material. The task was completed in 20 days.
Meanwhile, the new proving ground celebrated its first milestone with the launching of a modified Tiny Tim booster rocket Sept. 26, followed by a dummy WAC Corporal rocket the next day. The remaining months of 1945 saw an influx of troops arriving for duty at WSMR. Testing continued as contracts were let for more permanent structures at both the firing facilities and in the main post area.
In 1946, WSMR began its famous modified V-2 launches. These continued through 1952. Meanwhile, the Navy signed on at WSMR with the construction of a naval cantonment area just west of the Army headquarters. In addition, launching facilities for the Navy were constructed 2 miles east of the Army’s launch complex.
Stationed at Fort Bliss were members of the “Paperclip Crew,” Germans who had worked with the V-2 development team. The crew was headed by the famous aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun. They traveled daily to the proving ground to work with American scientists and engineers in assembling and launching the modified liquid-fueled V-2s. The vehicles were 46 feet long and 5.5 feet in diameter and could develop 56,000 pounds of thrust. These V-2s, launched from WSMR with their scientific payloads, set a variety of firsts for America’s space program. Milestones included achieving the first high-altitude and velocity records for a single stage rocket. A V-2 was the first large rocket to be controlled in flight. During the U.S. program, about 70 V-2s were fired at WSMR.
U.S. Highway 70 runs north of the Army’s launching area. To accommodate the new science of rocket and missile testing at WSPG, permission was needed from the state of New Mexico to block the highway to safeguard the well-being of travelers. Application was made to the New Mexico State Highway Department. WSPG received a letter, dated Nov. 15, 1948, declaring Highway 70 a military highway subject to periodic closing to the public.
White Sand’s borders began to take shape Aug. 19, 1952, when the Department of Defense moved control of the area known as the Alamogordo Bombing Range from the Air Force to WSPG. The change was part of a plan for an integrated range. A year later, on Oct. 6, 1953, the Department of the Army defined the boundary line between WSMR and Fort Bliss. With the inclusion of the Alamogordo Bombing Range territory, WSPG inherited one of the world’s most historic pieces of property — Trinity Site.
During World War II, the Manhattan Project needed a piece of isolated land to test an atomic device in its quest to develop an atomic bomb. A section of desert in the northern part of the bombing range was selected. Trinity Site is 90 miles north of the main post, near U.S. Highway 380 and the small town of San Antonio, New Mexico. In the predawn hours of July 16, 1945, the first atomic device was detonated at Trinity Site.
By the close of 1955, the proving ground contained a miniature city, offering modern conveniences to those who resided on post. Apart from the barracks buildings, there were 430 housing units and 93 trailer spaces with gas, water, sewer and electrical facilities. A branch U.S. post office and a branch bank were in operation. A post newspaper was published weekly. Telephone and telegraph facilities, as well as a service station, were available. To fill the educational and religious needs, an elementary school, a post chapel and a Sunday school were built.
Because there weren’t enough on-post quarters for both military and civilian personnel, government buses furnished daily transportation for those who lived in the surrounding communities.
A Department of Army General Order dated April 29, 1958, effective May 1, officially redesignated WSPG as White Sands Missile Range (WSMR).
The 1950s also saw development of other missiles and rockets built on the V-2 experience. These included the Sergeant, Redstone and Nike series. The Nike series began with the Nike Ajax anti-aircraft defense missile and continued with the development of the Nike Hercules and Zeus missiles.
In 1963, the missile range established off-range launch sites and flight corridors ranging as much as 400 miles from WSMR. These test sites were at Green River and Blanding, Utah, as well as Fort Wingate and Datil, New Mexico. Athena re-entry vehicles and Pershing ballistic missiles were launched from these off-range sites frequently during the ’60s and early ’70s.
Another famous missile system that had its humble beginnings at the missile range in the early 1970s was the Patriot air defense missile. The Patriot gained notoriety during Operation Desert Storm.
On March 30, 1982, WSMR made history when the Space Shuttle Columbia landed at the range’s Northrup Strip. The landing marked the end of the third test flight in the shuttle series and proved the craft could land in different locations under a variety of conditions. An act of Congress changed the name of the landing site to White Sands Space Harbor.
White Sands Missile Range entered the field of laser technology in 1983, with the establishment of the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility. A milestone was achieved six years later, Feb. 23, 1989, when the Navy’s Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser destroyed a missile flying at supersonic speeds.
In October 1985, the Launch Complex 33 gantry and blockhouse were designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. A Hermes A-l missile, on permanent loan from the Smithsonian Institution, had been placed in the gantry and dedicated in August 1984.
The missile range was the site of a series of launches of the Delta Clipper Experimental Vehicle from 1993 to 1996. Launch and hover tests conducted at White Sands Space Harbor were to pave the way for new types of reusable rockets.
In recent years, WSMR has tested numerous systems that have made contributions to America’s defense, such as the Army Tactical Missile System and variations of the Multiple Launch Rocket System. In 1996, WSMR once again began using its off-range site at Fort Wingate to launch target missiles for theater missile defense programs, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3.
In spring 2000, the state-of-the-art Cox Range Control Center was dedicated, bringing a new age of testing to the missile range.
In 2008, the 2nd Engineer Battalion (Combat) was activated on WSMR, becoming the only FORSCOM unit on post and the only active-duty Army battalion in the state of New Mexico. During Army restructuring in 2014 the 2nd Engineer Battalion left WSMR. In 2014 the 3rd Battalion, 6th Air Defense Artillery, Patriot Test Detachment was activated. The detachment provides the expertise and knowledge necessary to test future air defense systems.
WSMR takes great pride in its heritage and looks forward to continuing its testing and training efforts well into the future on behalf of the American warfighter.