from an essay by Jim Eckles
Retired Public Affairs Officer, White Sands Missile Range
THE ARMY'S GYPSUM DUNES
White Sands Missile Range occupies a very large space in southern New Mexico, hefty enough to easily squeeze in Delaware and Rhode Island. It extends north and south about 100 miles and is 40 miles wide in most places. Within its boundaries are two mountain ranges, most of the Tularosa Basin, some of the Jornada del Muerto and an assortment of playas, lava flows and Mogollon pueblos.
Also within its boundaries are the remaining gypsum sand dunes, those not protected in White Sands National Monument. It turns out more than half of the gypsum dunes are on the missile range. They extend north from the monument boundary, along the eastern edge of old Lake Otero and the missile range, to a few miles southwest of the village of Tularosa.
Because of the shifting nature of the dunes and their caustic environment, the missile range has almost no development in its dune field. With so much other land, the military has found it easier to place facilities and sites on friendlier ground.
This means the missile range’s dunes, without any visitors, are just as pristine as most areas found within the monument. The range has restrictions on using the dune field but they are not as stringent as the Park Service’s. Just a few years ago, scenes from the first two Transformersscience-fiction movies were filmed in the missile range’s dune field—look for very white dunes. It was a large project that could not have been accomplished inside the monument.
Looking at its basic dimensions, one would assume the missile range is 4,000 square miles but that is not the case. It is only 3,200 square miles or 2,000,000 acres. One reason is the very jagged boundary with many severed corners and cutouts. However, the main reason is the presence of the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge and White Sands National Monument within the missile range’s borders. These entities are islands of Department of Interior land floating in a sea of Department of Army property and have to be subtracted from the total.
The wildlife refuge is isolated up in the San Andres Mountains and has little impact on the missile range. The national monument, however, sits on the eastern border and extends right into the heart of the range’s daily business.
SHARING THE NEIGHBORHOOD
One obvious question is why does a military test facility, where dangerous stuff happens, have a 225-square mile public park smack-dab in the middle of it. The main reason is timing. White Sands National Monument was established in 1933 by presidential proclamation. This was years before any military needs arose in the Tularosa Basin and, as the old adage goes, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Being a long-established National Park Service holding helped when World War II started.
On July 9, 1945, the missile range was created by appropriating the real estate used for the Alamogordo Bombing Range during WWII. It would have been logical at that time to include the monument’s property in the new testing facility, to make one continuous expanse of military property with no large inholdings. However, the war’s conclusion ended the incredible urgency that drove extensive American sacrifices during the war years. Citizens were tired, heartbroken and just wanted to return to normal life.
The monument already existed and trying to abolish it to create more military facilities wasn’t going to happen. It was realistically and politically impossible. From 2,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., leadership simply decreed that the two organizations would have to learn to live with each other.
Having a civilian entity, normally open to the public all the time, completely surrounded by the missile range with its secretive and dangerous testing, created an unusual and interesting relationship for both sides. During those first few years, we’ll say there was friction between the two organizations as they tried to work out the details glossed over by Washington officials.
For the national monument, it meant safety restrictions for visitors and issues such as noise, military encroachment and access difficulties for staff. For the missile range it meant keeping those visitors safe, arranging mission schedules to minimize impact on the monument’s operations, tailoring flights to avoid public land and continuously educating the range’s workforce about the agreed upon restrictions concerning monument property.
White Sands Missile Range needs such a large footprint because it is charged with safely conducting weapons testing for the Army, Navy, Air Force and foreign military services. Also, the missile range provides testing support for other government agencies like NASA, the Department of Transportation, and the Federal Aviation Administration. Finally, some private companies avail themselves of the range’s state-of-the-art facilities.
Basically, the test range’s most valuable asset is its vast empty space. This allows heavy objects to be sent careening through the air at supersonic speeds, sometimes colliding with each other, and falling harmlessly to the ground. In fact, since 1945, more than 42,000 rockets and missiles have been safely fired at the missile range. Any youngster who loved playing with firecrackers and bottle rockets would find working at the missile range a dream come true.
Like other places in the country during 1942, landowners (ranchers in this case) were originally forced to leave their places for the creation of the Alamogordo Bombing Range and accept lease payments for the duration of World War II. Plans to return the property after the war hit a major glitch when military officials realized they needed to learn more about the new-fangled rocket technology emerging from Germany and at home. The old bombing range met most of the military’s criteria for their vision of what a missile testing range should look like.
The White Sands Proving Ground was established as the place in America to test and investigate rockets, especially the V-2 “Vengeance” weapon from Germany. The proving ground, later changed to “missile range” in 1958, took up the same property as the bombing range and leases with ranchers were simply extended.
The private property inside the new missile range accounted for less than four percent of the total. The rest was state and federal land originally leased by ranchers for grazing purposes. The privately held acres were finally purchased in the 70s and 80s.
In addition to its characteristics as a weapon, the V-2 rocket turned out to be a fabulous scientific research tool. The V-2s were used by military and civilian researchers to test and measure our atmosphere, study the effects of weightlessness, photograph the earth from space, and measure what happens to plants and animals when exposed to high levels of cosmic radiation. These early flights strongly suggested that a large mammal like a man would one day be able to survive a rocket flight.
Because of that work, the original launch complex is now a national historic landmark and is credited as the place where the Space Age began for the United States. The other national historic landmark on the missile range is Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945—the place where the Nuclear Age began.
This use of a rocket to “sound” or explore the upper atmosphere, to carry experiments to the edge of space, is the longest running program at the missile range. Even today, rockets sponsored by NASA, with payloads built by university students, are still fired by the Navy at White Sands which is run by the Army. It is truly a cooperative effort.
All of these rockets and missiles and the hundreds of remotely controlled aircraft used as targets have come crashing down on the missile range—well most of them have. Early on, when the technology was still young, there were occasional incidents where vehicles crashed outside the “sandbox.” The most famous was a V-2 that flew south instead of north and hit the ground with a resounding kaboom just outside Juarez in July 1947. To say the least, it was front-page news in the El Paso Times the next day.