Birthplace of America’s Missile and Space Activity
White Sands Missile Range is the largest overland military test range in the United States, occupying some 3,200 square miles of southern New Mexico. With more than 60 years experience in rocket and weapons system test and development, it has earned the title “Birthplace of America’s Missile and Space Activity.”
First known as White Sands Proving Ground (renamed White Sands Missile Range in 1958), this installation was established on July 9, 1945, as the place to test rocket technology emerging from World War II.
A launch complex, now known as Launch Complex 33, was built in the desert sand dunes six miles east of the post. It featured a concrete blockhouse with 10-foot-thick walls and a 27- foot-thick roof. A WAC Corporal launch tower was also erected. A year later, a gantry was added.
The first rockets to blast off from the launch complex, the nation’s first large-scale launch facility, were WAC Corporals. Built by the fledging Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the 16-foot, 660- pound rockets were designed to carry a 25-pound weather package to an altitude of 20 miles.
Since the WAC Corporal was under-powered, JPL engineers used a solid-fueled rocket booster dubbed “Tiny Tim” to get the rocket out of its launch tower and up to speed. The booster generated 50,000 pounds of thrust for a half second. By the time the WAC Corporal was out of the 100-foot tower it was going almost 275 mph.
During a series of tests in 1945 and 1946, the WAC Corporal was very successful, ultimately attaining an altitude of 43 miles.
V-2 Takes Main Stage
However, the German V-2 was destined to become the main show. When the parts and pieces arrived in New Mexico aboard 300 train cars, the U.S. suddenly had the capability to launch payloads approaching 2,000 pounds to altitudes exceeding 100 miles.
General Electric was given the Hermes program to assemble and launch V-2 rockets at White Sands. German scientists led, by Dr. Werhner von Braun, were assigned to Fort Bliss, Texas, just 50 miles down the road from White Sands. These German scientists and engineers assisted GE, teaching GE’s people how to assemble, handle and launch the big V-2s.
The V-2 stood 46 feet tall with a diameter of just over five feet. The gross weight at launch was about 28,000 pounds.