White Sands Missile Range

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Brief History

White Sands Proving Grounds was established in July 1945. It combined the existing ORDCIT Firing Ranges, the Alamogordo Bombing Range, and large tracts of both private and public lands. Even today, the range is speckled with the abandoned ranch houses and windmills of a bygone era. There are also several old abandoned silver and gold mines near the Gap Site of the Sierra Oscura.
White Sands Proving Grounds was later renamed to White Sands Missile Range, or WSMR (pronounced "Whiz-Mer" by nearby residents). The range occupies a somewhat rectangular strip of land, some 40 miles wide (east-west) and 100 miles long (north-south). It is the largest military installation in the United States. This strip of New Mexico desert has been in use since the 40's to test practically every weapon system in the U.S. military arsenal. Pioneering research in rocket technology shortly after World War II at WSMR helped propel the U.S. into space. Because of this, WSMR is sometimes known as the "Birthplace of the Race to Space".

Birthplace of the Race to Space

In the early part of this century, Robert Goddard began experimentation with liquid fuel rocket engines in New Mexico. Although his work was largely ignored in this country, a group of German space enthuasiasts used his work as a starting point in a quest to build a rocket capable of reaching outer space. The German group included a young scientist, Wernher von Braun, who was later to play a key role in establishing the Space Age.

Prior to World War II, the German group built several small to medium sized liquid fuel rockets. During this development, they developed fundamental guidance and control systems. These guidance and control systems are key elements of rocket technology, and allow missiles and rockets to accurately arrive at their intended targets. This technology would later be refined to form the foundation of guidance systems in the V-2 rocket of World War II and every missile and rocket built in this century.

Prior to World War II, the German government was prohibited from building long-distance artillery. Because of these restrictions, the German military establishment was interested in systems capable of delivering ordinance over long distances. Seeing the progress of Wernher von Braun and his group with rocket technology, the German military establishment enlisted von Braun and his group to develop a large rocket system to deliver "payloads" over hundreds of miles. World War II broke out, and von Braun soon found himself running a large development project. Their work produced the V-2 rocket, a system capable of lofting hundreds of pounds of explosives in a ballistic trajectory reaching into space and then landing across the English channel with an accuracy of approximately one mile. The technology developed in this program would fuel the space programs of the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It, unfortunately, would also be used by these two superpowers to design rockets capable of delivering nuclear death anywhere on the planet and play a part in the Cold War.

Across a cold ocean to the Warm New Mexico Desert

Fearing capture by advancing Soviet troops, key members of the German V-2 rocket design team defected to the United States near the end of World War II. Leading this group of defecting scientists was Dr. Wernher von Braun who is widely known as "the father of the V-2". Along with this group of talented scientists, the United States also captured a couple of dozen intact V-2 rockets, which were crated and shipped back to the United States before the advancing Soviet army captured and occupied the German rocket development center. The Soviets would enlist the remaining engineers and scientists to start their own rocket development program.

The group of German scientists defecting to the U.S. and their captured V-2 rockets would form the core of a new rocket design community in the United States. This team would split time between design and research outside of Huntsville, Alabama and testing and evaluation at Whites Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. The twin engine aircraft used to shuttle Wernher von Braun between Huntsville and White Sands is on display at Missile Park.

In an at best "uneasy" alliance after the war, the German scientists lead by Dr. von Braun and their U.S. colleagues began a series of experiments and test firings of V-2 rockets under the supervision of the U.S. Army at White Sands Proving Grounds in the desert of Southern New Mexico. The knowledge acquired through this program lead directly to the Redstone rocket program, and every other rocket developed in the United States since. Although designed for military purposes, the Redstone rocket propelled the first U.S. astronaut, Alan Shepard, to space. Other significant accomplishments of this team include the design of the Apollo V rocket first stage which helped send U.S. astronauts to the moon.

Museum and Gift Shop, and Missile Park

A museum and park have been set up to celebrate the unique role of WSMR in U.S. missile and space technology. The White Sands Missile Range Museum features the exploits of Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team of scientists. The museum exhibit includes photos and early instruments used by this team while testing V-2 rockets at WSMR. Outside of the museum is Missile Park. Missile Park features approximately 30-40 rockets and missiles tested at WSMR throughout the years. There is a mix of both military hardware and civilian rockets, such as sounding rockets used to explore the fringes of space. A paved footpath leads you around the missiles. Each missile has a plaque detailing the name of the missile, when it was created, what it was used for, and other specifications. This unique exhibit includes everything from a V-1 Buzzbomb to a Patriot Missile battery like that used in the Persian Gulf operation, to the casing for an atomic bomb like the one dropped on Nagasaki in World War II. But don't stop there! South of the Missile Park about 1/4 mile is an authentic V-2 rocket. The V-2 sits by itself in a small park. This is 1 of only 5 remaining V-2 rockets in the world! Make sure you make the walk from Missile Park to see this unique engineering work of art that has earned a place in the history of space exploration.

Hours of Operation

The Museum and Gift Shop is open from 8:00am - 4:30pm Monday-Friday
Missile Park is open 8:00am - 4:00pm every day
Admission price is FREE to both the Museum and Missile Park.
There is no phone number listed for the Museum and Missile Park

Getting There

The WSMR Museum and Missile Park is located 4 miles south of U.S. 70 between Alamogordo and Las Cruces (closer to Las Cruces). The exit is located just at the base of the Organ Mountains on the east side of the mountains. The exit has a sign that reads "White Sands Missile Range" - there is NO special notification for either the Museum or Missile Park. The distances to the exit are:


Coming from Las Cruces, look for the exit on the right side of the freeway approximately 5-8 miles from the Aguirre Spring exit. From Alamogordo or White Sands National Monument, look for the large "White Sands Missile Range" sign as you start to climb uphill at the base of the Organ mountains. Your exit will be on the right, and you will cross underneath the freeway.

!! BEFORE YOU PACK THE CAR !!

The White Sands Missile Range Museum and Missile Park are INSIDE the military base of WSMR. To visit, you will need to get a Visitors Pass at the guard station. You will need the following:

Visitors check in at the Visitors Checkpoint building on the right hand side of the road before the guard station. On the weekends when the Visitors Checkpoint is closed, the guards on duty can issue your visitors pass. Keep in mind that during the week there is substantial traffic entering and leaving the base around 8:00am and again at 4:30pm.
While at the Visitors Checkpoint you will see the Missile Park a short distance inside the base on the left hand side of the road.


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Last modified on February 19, 1995.
Ron Wayne Green
viva@viva.com