NASA at White Sands Missile Range

By Darren Court, Museum Director/Curator

Edited by Jenn Jett, Museum Specialist

The Redstone, designed by the German rocket team at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama and first flown in 1958, was the Army’s largest nuclear capable missile, capable of carrying a warhead a distance of 200 miles. By the early 1960s, NASA began looking for a vehicle for launching astronauts into space. From this venture came the Mercury-Redstone. In May and July 1961, it carried Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom, respectively, into space. NASA was only beginning its relationship with WSMR and would come out to test a method of removing astronauts from the vehicle should something go wrong with an Apollo launch. They would conduct research on the range for decades, in collaboration with the Navy, and WSMR would be an alternate landing site for the Shuttle program, with Columbia, during STS-3, landing on the range in 1982.

Weighing a Redstone motor section prior to launch. Two engineers use a level underneath the structure to ensure accuracy. January 9, 1959.

Redstone was designed as a surface-to-surface missile for the U.S. Army, under von Braun’s direction by the Army Ballistic Missile agency beginning in 1952. Chrysler, Rocketdyne, Ford, and Sperry were all contractors, with Chrysler being the prime contractor. The first Redstone lifted off from Cape Canaveral on 20 August 1953. It flew for one minute and 20 seconds before suffering an engine failure and falling into the sea. Subsequent tests in Florida and White Sands were hardly better, but it finally became operational in 1955. Redstone carried a 3.8 megaton nuclear warhead up to 201 miles.

NASA chose the U.S. Army’s Redstone liquid-fueled ballistic missile for its suborbital flights as it was the oldest, most successful, largest rocket the US currently had. The standard army Redstone lacked sufficient thrust to lift a Mercury capsule into the ballistic suborbital trajectory needed for the project; however, the first stage of the Jupiter-C, which was a modified Redstone with lengthened tanks, could carry enough propellant to reach the desired trajectory. Therefore, this Jupiter-C first stage was used as the starting point for the Mercury-Redstone design. The Jupiter-C’s engine, however, was being phased out by the Army, so to avoid potential complications such as parts shortages or design revisions, the Mercury-Redstone designers chose the Rocketdyne A-7 engine used on the latest army Redstones. In addition, the alcohol-water fuel used by the Redstone had to be replaced since the Jupiter-C used something quite different, which in turn required larger fuel tanks. Because of this, Mercury-Redstone had larger propellant tanks than the Redstone missile, an additional nitrogen bottle was added for tank pressurization, and an extra hydrogen peroxide tank for powering the turbopump due to the longer burn time.

The rocket was transported in three trailers – warhead, guidance, and thrust frame sections – and assembled in place with the nuclear warhead installed before being raised on a firing platform. During Operation Hardtack I, an exo-atmospheric test on August 1, 1958, a Redstone launched from Johnstone Island lofted a 3.8 megaton nuclear warhead to detonation at an altitude of 47 miles.

The most important change in making the Mercury-Redstone a suitable vehicle for an astronaut was the addition of an automatic in-flight abort sensing system. In an emergency where the rocket was about to suffer a catastrophic failure, an abort would activate the launch escape system attached to the Mercury capsule, which would rapidly eject it from the booster. Either the astronaut or the ground controllers could initiate an abort manually, but some potential failures during flight might lead to disaster before an abort could be manually triggered.

Little Joe II was used from 1963–66 for five unmanned tests of the Apollo spacecraft Launch Escape System (LES), and to verify the performance of the Command Module parachute recovery system in abort mode. It was named after a similar rocket designed for the same function in Project Mercury. Man-rating of the Apollo launch escape system was planned to be accomplished at minimum cost early in the program. Since there were no reasonably priced launch vehicles with the payload capability and thrust versatility that could meet the requirements of the planned tests, a contract was awarded for the development and construction of a specialized launch vehicle. The rocket’s predecessor, Little Joe, had been used in testing the launch escape system for the Mercury spacecraft from 1959–60.

The program was originally planned to be conducted at the U.S. Air Force Eastern Test Range at Cape Kennedy, Florida. However, because of a heavy schedule of high-priority launches at that facility, other possible launch sites were evaluated including Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Virginia, and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Launch Complex 36 at White Sands Missile Range, previously used for Redstone missile tests, was ultimately selected as the most suitable for meeting schedule and support requirements. White Sands also allowed land recovery which was less costly and complicated than the water recovery that would have been required at the Eastern Test Range or at the NASA Wallops Island facility.

Successful flight of a Little Joe II rocket. The testing proved that the Launch Escape System worked correctly as designed, ensuring the safety of NASA’s ability to remove astronauts quickly from the Saturn V rockets should something occur on the launch pad prior to or during launch.

White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH) began as Northup Strip in the late 1940’s. Northrop Aviation Corporation originally built the runway as a landing site for target drones. It became Northrup Strip due to a typographical error and the name stuck – it was acquired by White Sands in 1952. In early 1975 NASA selected the location as a training area for shuttle pilots, with the original 10,000-foot airstrip being enlarged to 15,000 feet. The first shuttle training flight occurred on 13 August 1976, with over 250 training flights a year during the life of the location. Soon, a second runway was added, running from northeast to southwest, and crossing the original strip. In 1979, both runways were increased to 35,000 feet to allow WSSH to serve as an alternate landing strip.

After the Columbia mission White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH) was outfitted with a night landing light system, consisting of six portable xenon landing lights on each of the runways. On addition to the new lighting, emplaced on trailers so they could be moved, the system also included Inner Glide Slope lighting, strobe lights, the Precision Path Indicator (PAPI) used for outer glide slope lighting, 300 reflectors, and approach lighting as found at airports.

Columbia would be the only shuttle to land at White Sands, though the range was on alert and ready during each flight in case NASA needed it again. Space Shuttle Columbia flew 27 missions over 22 years. On its 28th mission, it disintegrated upon reentry on 1 February 2003. All seven crew members aboard were killed. WSSH was mothballed after the shuttle program ended in 2011 and was completely released back to White Sands in summer 2012.

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