A Brief History of White Sands Proving Ground, 1941-1965

Development of the Integrated Range

At Holloman, planning for the High Speed Test Track was initiated with Northrup and Hughes Aircraft in October, and by December, HAFB had been reorganized under the Air Materiel Command. All three services now had successful missile programs in place—the Army and Navy at WSPG and the Air Force at HAFB. In September, WSPG was “declared a Class II activity under the control of the Chief of Ordnance at Fort Bliss, Texas” (Dept. of Army, General Order 59, 8 September 1948).

Late in the year, two developments occurred that would greatly expand the WSPG mission. During August and September, the two Koreas were established, setting the stage for the conflict that would begin in less than two years. On December 29, 1948, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal announced the establishment of the U.S. earth satellite vehicle program, which would launch the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, into space less than a decade later.

1949

On January 4, 1949, Army General Order 2.II designated the Signal Corps Engineering Laboratory at WSPG (which had been temporary since April 1946) as the 9577th Technical Service Unit, SCEL Field Station No. 1, at Fort Bliss. On October 26, an additional Signal Corps unit was added to the WSPG complement with the arrival of six officers and 210 enlisted men from the 169th Signal Construction Company at Camp Gordon, Georgia. In March, USAF control of WSPG’s local support airfield, Condron Field, was transferred from Biggs Army Air Field at Fort Bliss to Holloman.

Brig. Gen. Phillip Blackmore, WSPG’s second Commanding Officer, established a Joint Range Coordination Committee on January 7, composed of the WSPG Commanding General, the HAFB Commanding Officer, and the WSPG Naval Officer-in-Charge, to resolve problems of cooperation and jurisdiction at a local level. The Committee’s authority was challenged within a month by the Commanding General at Fort Bliss, who asserted his command authority over WSPG, based on the General Order establishing the Proving Ground as a permanent Class II activity under his command. The Air Force and Navy vehemently opposed this action—more than three years of negotiations took place before the Secretary of Defense’s final decision, on July 18, 1952, resolved the dispute by centralizing range operational authority under the Commander, WSPG. The decision recognized advise by deputies from both the Air Force and Navy and denied the authority of the Commander, Fort Bliss. The new chain of command led directly from the WSPG Commander to the Department of the Army through the Ordnance Department. The Air Force retained title and command of HAFB, while the Navy retained administrative control and title over all Navy facilities. The final integration plan was issued on August 19, 1952, and took effect September 1. The dispute concerning use of the range for training purposes continued at the departmental level, which had a detrimental effect on the Air Force guided-missile program at HAFB by creating a belief that the program was to be taken over by the Army. This belief led, in turn, to the cancellation of plans and monies, seriously jeopardizing the guided-missile program.

In early January, the Hermes II (or B-1) program resumed test firing after more than a year’s delay following the loss of course control and the impact of test vehicle No. 0 near Juarez in 1947. Hermes II used a modified V–2 to carry a smaller, second-stage ramjet missile, known officially as RAM and nicknamed Organ. The second Hermes II B–1 was successfully launched from LC-33 on January 3, followed by two additional tests in October 1949 and November 1950.

The GE Bumper No. 5, fired at WSPG on February 24, was the first with a fully fueled second stage and the first to be completely successful. After 30 seconds, the first-stage V–2 had attained a speed of 3,600 miles per hour. The WAC separated and continued upward to a distance of 250 miles into outer space, reaching a speed of 5,150 miles per hour, achieving a new altitude record. This was the first time radio equipment had ever been operated at such extreme altitudes. On July 29, Bumper No. 7, fired at the Long Range Proving Ground, Florida (as was No. 8), attained Mach 9, reaching 2,039 miles per hour, a new record for sustained speed in the earth’s atmosphere.

On May 3, 1949, the Navy’s new American-designed Martin Viking research rocket (originally called Neptune) was first launched from LC-33, reaching an altitude of 50 miles. At Holloman, the Hughes Falcon (the world’s first operational, guided air-to-air missile, or AAM), the first Martin Matador surface-to-surface pilotless bomber, and the first USAF X–8 Aerobee had been launched. Preliminary development testing for the Bell Rascal program, the world’s first supersonic strategic ASM, had begun with dummy drops of the Shrike re-entry vehicle.

Meanwhile, the range co-use and full-use agreements with landowners were found to be unworkable and were terminated in March 1949. In May 1952, Public Land Order 833 withdrew range lands for exclusive military use. In August 1952, 168,000 acres were transferred from Fort Bliss to WSPG.

On May 11, 1949, President Harry S. Truman signed legislation authorizing development of a 3,000-mile guided missile test range. That July, the public and press were first allowed to visit Trinity Site. The following month, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb.

A Navy-designed Viking sounding rocket ascends from its launch pad.
An Aerobee 170 takes off from its specially-built launch pad.

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of White Sands Proving Ground, 1941-1965

  1. Having been stationed at Stallion site Jan. 1962 until Sept. 1963, I found this article extremely interesting as well as educational. Thank you authors for a fine job.

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