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

Post-Stalin Cold War:
Expanded Conflict and New Frontiers

During 1954-1955, the Cold War began to escalate. In 1954, the French suffered a catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel into North and South. On May 1, the Soviets revealed the M–4, their first jet-propelled, long-range bomber. At the end of May, the first Nike-Ajax battery became operational at Fort Meade, Maryland. In August, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Communist Control Act, and the Communist party was outlawed in the United States.


In 1955, the Warsaw Pact was signed, calling for mutual defense among the Communist Bloc. In June, the United States held its first nationwide civil-defense exercise, and the first SAC nuclear B–52 bombers were deployed. On July 29, Eisenhower’s press secretary announced the U.S. artificial-satellite program, and the United States officially entered the space race. Exaggerated reaction to Soviet air-show bomber displays raised the specter of a “bomber gap,” adding fuel to the missile race.

During September 1954, Wernher von Braun, in a secret report entitled The Minimum Satellite Vehicle Based Upon Components Available from Missile Development of the Army Ordnance Corps, had predicted that other countries in addition to the United States already had the capability to assemble and launch an earth satellite within a few years. He concluded, “it would be a blow to U.S. prestige if we did not do it first.” In the spring of 1955, the CIA informed President Eisenhower that the Soviets were already engaged in such a satellite program. At the President’s direction, DoD convened the Ad Hoc Committee on Special Capabilities to consider proposals for a satellite system from the three services, for a launch coinciding with the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957–1958. The Army, under von Braun’s direction, proposed launching a 15-pound payload by 1956, using Redstone as the first stage topped by a cluster of 37 Loki rockets as upper stages. The Navy, in A Scientific Satellite Programme dated July 5, 1955, proposed a 40-pound satellite using a three-stage system based on Viking and Aerobee. The Air Force promised it could launch an even heavier payload using the proposed Atlas ICBM, whose development had just been contracted to Convair that January. The committee chose the Navy’s proposal, naming the project Vanguard. In July, Eisenhower announced the intention to launch the first earth-orbiting satellite during the IGY.

In March 1955, the first on-range firing of a USAF Matador took place. Shortly thereafter, Matador became the Air Force’s first operational missile. Similar in size and shape to a jet fighter and loosely based on the German V–1, Matador could carry a 3,000- pound nuclear or conventional warhead while flying up to 35,000 feet over a range of 500-650 miles. This and other advanced long- range tactical missiles demanded longer test ranges. Despite their test advantages, especially the ease of payload and vehicle recovery, overland ranges were limited in size. Numerous plans for a variety of possible WSPG range extension firing corridors of 100, 140, and 200 miles were proposed. In December, the WSPG Acting Commander proposed the acquisition of 216 square miles for a northern range extension.

A selection of early missiles tested at White Sands.
A Navy Aerobee sounding rocket is moved to its launchpad.

In 1956, war broke out in the Middle East following Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal. Hungary revolted, and Nikita Khrushchev promised “We will bury you.” WSPG and Holloman Air Development Center (HADC) had finalized their Joint-Use Tenancy Agreement, completing the process of range integration. In February, the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency (BMA) was established at Huntsville Arsenal to develop the Jupiter IRBM and assume the lead role in Army long-range missile weaponry, including the Redstone. By June, detailed plans for WSPG’s long- range flight corridors and impact areas had been prepared for distances of 250, 500, 750, 925, and 1,500 miles. However, in November, a directive from the Secretary of Defense curtailed the original BMA mission, limiting Army missiles to a range of less than 200 miles. Longer-range programs became the purview of the Air Force. That same month, a Rascal fired from Orogrande marked the beginning of off-range testing at WSPG. Toward the end of the year, the Navy (on behalf of the Air Force) had contracted with RCA for a land-based Talos Defense Unit, which was successfully tested one year later at WSPG. By December, the Navy/Martin team had successfully launched the first modified Viking Vanguard test vehicle, with inert second and third stages.

The Mercury-Redstone was a crew-capable member of the Redstone family of rockets.
The Navy’s Talos missiles were developed to be ship-launched, but it also went through testing to develop a surface-launched variant.

Holloman’s Capt. Joseph Kittenger, Jr. and Lt. Col. David Simons made record-breaking Man-High I and II balloon ascents to 96,000 and 102,000 feet (respectively, in June and August). These were eclipsed on October 4, 1957, when the Russians achieved the first satellite earth orbit with Sputnik I, followed in November by the 1,120-pound Sputnik II, carrying the dog, Laika. Both Sputniks were launched aboard the massive Soviet 32-engine SS–6 Sapwood, the first Soviet ICBM, initially tested just months before in August.

The competing Vanguard program, based on the Navy’s Viking and Aerobee, successfully launched the second modified Viking test vehicle from Cape Canaveral in May, but the results still trailed behind. Then in December, under mounting pressure following Sputnik I and II, a third test vehicle using a new first stage was hurriedly readied to launch a 4-pound satellite. Faulty ignition in the new first stage caused the Vanguard to explode, and the launch failed.

In early November, von Braun’s Army Redstone team at Huntsville was directed to undertake satellite-launch attempts. In just under three months, on January 29, 1958, they succeeded with America’s Explorer I, boosted by a massive Jupiter C, modified from the older Redstone.

The Navy at WSPG continued to set new single-stage, high-altitude records with Aerobee–Hi, which reached an altitude of 190 miles in April. The Deckhouse was added to Desert Ship at LC-35, and missile assembly was relocated from the Navy Headquarters area. The first land-based TDU (Talos Defense Unit) just west of Desert Ship was completed in September, and the first launch of a TDU-directed Talos scored a direct hit on a drone in December. APL began formulating the basic concepts for the first radar-guided integrated missile weapon system for the Navy, named Typhon. In September, the first long-range Air Force Matador flight from WSPG impacted at the inactive Wendover Bombing Range, Utah, and the first underground nuclear test took place near Las Vegas, Nevada.

In August 1957, Russia announced its first successful ICBM launch, followed in December by the first U.S. Atlas ICBM. Although Atlas was only four months behind the Soviet program and represented the largest and one of the fastest missile development programs, the apparent lag led to a broad perception of a missile gap between the two countries. That December, the Gaither Report to the National Security Council concluded that the Soviets had achieved superiority in long-range ballistic missiles. Late that year, a Columbia graduate student first conceived of an idea that would revolutionize both military and civilian technology as the millennium closed—the laser.

An Aerobee Hi rocket launches up its specially made tower.
A Typhon missile, the Navy’s first radar-guided missile system.

In 1958, Khrushchev became the Soviet Premier as well as First Secretary of the Communist Party. Both the United States and the Soviets now had parallel ICBM and space programs. First the Soviet Union, and then the United States and Britain, suspended atmospheric nuclear testing. Later in the year, Khrushchev demanded talks about German reunification. In January, the Army’s Anti-ICBM Nike-Zeus had been chosen over its Air Force competitor, the Wizard, as the basis for ballistic missile defense (BMD). (The first Zeus was successfully fired on December 16, 1959, at WSMR and tested against Atlas at Ascension Island, a British Colony in the South Atlantic, in 1960.) The November 1956 Wilson Memorandum prohibition on long-range Army missile programs was rescinded, and the Army contracted with Martin Company for Missile D, which became known as Pershing, a two-stage, surface- to-surface tactical nuclear missile with a range of 100-460 miles.

On March 17, the Vanguard program finally succeeded with its fifth test vehicle (TV–4), which became the first multistage launch platform, delivering a 5-pound payload, including a 4-pound satellite, into an elliptical 406-mile orbit. This Vanguard’s orbit was used to demonstrate the true, pear-shaped, bulged form of Earth. The first Vanguard success was followed the next year by six more failures and two successes (SLV–4, SLV–7), completing the original program.

The Navy constructed Army Launch Area 3 (LC-36), and the WSMR Flight Determination Laboratory was renamed the Integrated Range Mission, reflecting implementation of the formal joint-use agreements developed during the previous six years. A USAF Mace (successor to Matador) was launched along the Wendover corridor in February, becoming the first inertially guided missile flown over a populated area in the United States. In May, WSPG was officially renamed White Sands Missile Range. In June, WSMR launched its first Redstone ICBM from the new Launch Area 3 (LC-36). In July, President Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to consolidate and direct American efforts in the newly established space race, transferring the remaining Paperclip personnel who would become the nucleus of the Marshall Space Flight Center. In December, the new agency established Project Mercury, the first human space program.

The original 3,550-foot High Speed Test Track at HAFB, operational since 1950, began its last year of testing before being extended to 35,000 feet. A Horizontal Test Stand designed for Atlas engine tests was approved as part of the new track’s instrumentation, but was never fully equipped or used for Atlas. On March 21, a world-record monorail sled run on the old track achieved a speed of 2,704 miles per hour. At the companion Daisy Track, Capt. E. I. Beeding Jr., became the first human to absorb 83G. In October, Lt. Clinton McClure III reached 99,900 feet aboard the Man-High III balloon gondola. The 400th successful Firebee launch took place in November.

A Nike-Zeus SAM sits elevated on its launching rail.
Project Mercury was America’s first human space program, eventually carrying astronaut Alan Shepard into space.

The year 1959 opened explosively with the Cuban Revolution on  New Year’s Day. In May, President Eisenhower decided against deploying the Nike-Zeus, still in the testing stage. In July, Vice President Richard Nixon visited Khrushchev in the Soviet Union. September was eventful: the Atlas D became operational, a Soviet Lunik II spacecraft crashed on the moon, and Khrushchev visited the United States to meet with President Eisenhower at Camp David. In October, Lunik III passed around the far side of the Moon, returning the first photographs of the Moon’s hidden surface.

In April, WSMR received the OCO Legislative Liaison and Public Relations Plans of its proposed Northern Extension. The Acting Secretary of the Army approved the Northern Extension Plan in August, and WSMR also assumed operational control of the Fort Churchill, Manitoba, Rocket Research Facility. At Holloman, the new, longer High Speed Test Track became operational, the 100th Aerobee–Hi reached 140 miles as the program closed down at HAFB, and testing was completed on the Sidewinder AAM. In November, Capt. Joseph Kittenger, Jr., parachuted from an open balloon gondola at 76,400 feet. The same year, APL began developing the Typhon Weapons System for testing at Desert Ship. (Typhon was first fired in March 1961. After 10 successful test flights, the Typhon System was terminated in 1963, because of its high cost.)

A Sidewinder Raven being launched.
A Typhon missile after launch.

By January 1, 1960, all co-use agreements for the Northern Extension had been completed. Six weeks later, France joined the nuclear group with the explosion of her first atomic bomb. Weightlessness training for Project Mercury astronauts began over HAFB in March, using a modified C–131.

Nike-Hercules, successor to Ajax since 1958, acquired enhanced guidance. Early in the year, Hercules, equipped with the new High- Power Acquisition Radar, successfully intercepted an oncoming Corporal over WSMR. But by 1960, the concept of a Ballistic Missile Defense system had become problematic and both the USAF and the Navy had abandoned their BMD programs. Nike-Zeus, the first anti-ICBM, was already outdated and would shortly be replaced by the Nike X (later Safeguard) program starting in 1963.

In 1960, the U.S. satellite program began in earnest. In April, balloon drops began to test the re-entry system of the Discoverer satellite. In May, the United States launched the Midas II military reconnaissance satellite; Tiros I, the first weather satellite; and Echo, the first passive communications satellite.

In May, just over two weeks after Gary Powers was shot down in a U–2 spy plane, the Commander of Army Ordnance Missile Command officially requested WSMR’s support for an off-range launch of Redstone, proposing Fort Wingate as a launch site.

On July 20, the 1,000th rocket sled reached a speed of 2,660 miles per hour at the HAFB High Speed Test Track. In August, Capt. Joseph Kittenger, Jr., again broke records with a balloon flight and parachute jump from 102,800 feet, free-falling 82,300 feet and reaching a speed of 614 miles per hour.

That November, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States.

A Nike-Hercules on its TEL.
A Safeguard Sprint rocket being tested.

On January 31, after Kennedy’s inauguration, HAM became the first Holloman Aero-Medical chimpanzee to go into space on a 16- minute suborbital flight. On February 1, the first Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) became operational. By mid-month, the Army Ordnance Missile Command’s earlier request for a Redstone launch from Fort Wingate to WSMR was denied. In March, the Navy conducted the first test launch of the Typhon integrated weapon system.

Once again, the Soviet Union preempted the United States in the space race with the successful Vostok I mission on April 12, which placed the first human being, Yuri Gargarin, in orbit around the Earth. Five days later, the ill-fated, U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba escalated existing tensions, already heated by the January break in diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s government. Russia also launched its first Venus mission that year, but lost contact with the probe.

On May 5, less than one month after Gargarin’s historic orbital flight, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., became the first U.S. astronaut in space. Shepard, aboard the Mercury Freedom 7 boosted by the Army’s Redstone, completed a 15-minute suborbital flight. Virgil Grissom followed on July 21, aboard Liberty Bell 7, for a 16-minute suborbital flight. Then, on August 6, Soviet cosmonaut G. Titov dwarfed all previous efforts, achieving a 17-orbit, 25.6-hour flight.

Meanwhile, the Cold War heated up on several fronts. On May 11, just two weeks before his pledge to put a human on the moon in the next decade, Kennedy committed U.S. advisors to Vietnam. In June, Khrushchev repeated his ongoing demands for German reunification talks within six months. Kennedy responded with a rapid military buildup and another civil-defense program. By August, East Germany had closed the Brandenburg Gate, sealing the border in preparation for constructing the Berlin Wall. By September, both the Soviet Union and the United States had resumed underground nuclear testing.

Late in 1961, Gen. Schriever, Commander of the Air Force Systems Command, commissioned a white paper on the concept of re-entry systems for ballistic missiles. The clear practicality of ballistic missile-defense systems such as Nike-Zeus indicated that the deployment of BMD systems created an actual defensive combat zone and that the offensive-delivery system, exclusive of the re- entry vehicle, constituted a logistic and not a weapons element. This study resulted in the ABRES, or Advanced Ballistic Re-Entry Systems program, to study ways of increasing the penetrability of offensive re-entry systems. In July, WSMR had installed an integrated real-time data system, primarily for the ARPAT program, to provide ground guidance for hyper-velocity targets. WSMR was chosen for sub-scale tests of ABRES in a program called Athena, which further upgraded range instrumentation.

Rear Admiral (Ret.) Alan B. Shepard, first US astronaut in space. Photo by IMDB.
General Bernard A. Schriever, Commander, Air Force Systems Command. USAF Photo.

At the end of January, nuclear test-ban talks in Geneva finally broke down. The U.S. Mercury space program began to achieve impressive results, orbiting three astronauts during the year: John Glenn in February, Scott Carpenter in June, and Wally Shirra in October. The U.S. Mariner 2 became the first man-made object to reach another planet, Venus. Telstar, launched in July, became the first active communications satellite. Meanwhile, the Soviet Mars probe failed when contact was lost. In April, the United States resumed atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. By October, the same time the first flight of 10 silo-protected Minuteman I ICBMs became operational, Soviet missile bases under construction in Cuba were detected, precipitating a U.S. blockade.

In May 1962, the U.S. Army discontinued the OCO, parent organization for America’s earliest space and missile efforts. The WSMR Integrated Range Mission, which had started as the BRL White Sands Annex, became the Range Operation Directorate, and WSMR was transferred to the Army Materiel Command.

During 1962, WSMR also tested the Lockheed Pegasus, fired from the original Redstone pad at LC-36, for launching the SAMOS spy satellite. In September, the Air Force’s Green River, Utah, launch site for the Athena sub-scale tests of ABRES was approved, and land acquisition was initiated by the Sacramento District Corps of Engineers in late December. Pershing, which had been in the test phase at the Atlantic Missile Range since 1960, became operational in July and was widely deployed during the next two years in both the United States and West Germany.

The first successful firing of the North American Aviation/Air Force Hound Dog, a forerunner of the modern cruise missile based on the canceled Navaho, took place on October 11. The Hound Dog air-to-surface missile was designed for launch from a B-52 bomber, carrying a 1-megaton nuclear warhead. The first off-range test firing of Hound Dog was launched from Del Rio, Texas, but failed to reach the range and impacted into Guadalupe Peak.

The USAF AGM-28 Hound Dog ASM.
The US Army MGM-31 Pershing Field Artillery Missile System launching from its TEL.

The U. S. and Soviet space programs continued to compete as L. Gordon Cooper completed 22 orbits in May, followed by Valentina Tereshkova-Nikolayeva, first woman in space, who reached 48 orbits in June. The Soviets also achieved two vehicles in simultaneous orbital flight. In February, Syncom 2 became the first artificial satellite placed in geosynchronous orbit.

The U.S.S.R. and the United States began exploring ways to moderate tensions. In a June 10 speech, Kennedy questioned the wisdom of the so-called holy war that had developed and suggested a mutual interest on both sides in peace and a halt to the arms race. Ten days later, the White House-Kremlin Hot Line was established. The first Minuteman ICBM wing, consisting of three 50-missile squadrons, became operational during the same period that IRBM Thor and Jupiter missiles in Britain, Italy, and Turkey were being removed from service.

In July, Cuba seized the American Embassy in Havana. By October, Kennedy had signed the trilateral Limited Test Ban Treaty. Unfortunately, other tensions continued to escalate in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and at home. Civil-rights demonstrations in Birmingham and the arrest of Martin Luther King required the intervention of federal troops under Presidential order, and 200,000 Freedom Marchers demonstrated in Washington. In November, South Vietnamese President Diem was assassinated. Three weeks later, John Kennedy suffered the same fate in Dallas.

Earlier in the year, the new Nike X BMD program was authorized, and Martin Marietta was chosen to develop the high-acceleration Sprint SAM. At WSMR, the fully operational Pershing began off-range test firings from Fort Wingate, NM.

USSR cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova-Nikolayeva, the first woman in space. Photo from the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
A prototype SPRINT SAM being emplaced just before nightfall.

In February, the U.S. Ranger VI space probe took the first good closeup pictures of the Moon. President Johnson announced the War on Poverty and signed the Civil Rights Act, while urban riots continued to erupt. In August, Johnson ordered immediate retaliation against the North Vietnamese after the attack on the U.S. destroyers Maddox and C. Turner Joy. Congress immediately passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, marking the official beginning of the Vietnam War, granting the president power to take “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States.” China detonated its first atomic bomb October 16, the day after Khrushchev was ousted as Prime Minister and Secretary of the Communist Party, replaced by Kosygin and Brezhnev, respectively.

At WSMR, the Athena program began firing and the Multi-function Array Radar (MAR) developed for the Nike X program began testing. The General Dynamics’ Nike-Hercules continued with 12 firings of various tactical and scientific configurations.

A USAF Athena rocket sits static on its stand.
The Nike Hercules launching from its pad.

In March, the first U.S. Marines waded ashore at Da Nang, Vietnam. By May, U.S. troops had been sent to the Dominican Republic to defeat the emergence of a new Communist state in the Western Hemisphere. In November, U.S. forces engaged the North Vietnamese at Ia Drang Valley. On the home front, civil rights conflicts in the south continued to escalate, culminating with Ku Klux Klan murders in Selma, Alabama. Student demonstrations against the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam began, and during the summer, Watts, in Los Angeles, exploded in race riots that left 35 dead.

The competing Soviet and U.S. space programs continued to achieve new milestones. On March 18, A. Leonov conducted the first space walk, spending 20 minutes outside his spacecraft. On March 23, America’s first two-person space crew, Virgil Grissom and John Young, orbited three times in a Gemini spacecraft. They were followed in early June by McDivitt and White, who completed 62 orbits, including extravehicular activity. On July 15, the Mariner IV passed within 7,500 miles of Mars. In August, Cooper and Conrad achieved a 120-orbit Gemini flight, demonstrating the feasibility of a lunar mission. In December, Schirra and Stafford, in Gemini 6, successfully rendezvoused in space with Gemini 7, manned by Borman and Lovell.

The year 1965 marked the end of an era in the missile race. Lance missile firings began at WSMR in March. The Vought Lance SSM, a 45-75 mile tactical fire-support system, eventually replaced Honest John and Sergeant. SAC had deactivated all its first-generation ICBMs—including 18 Atlas Ds, 27 Atlas Es, 68 Atlas Fs, 54 Titan Is, and 54 Titan IIs—all of which had been superseded by 600 Minuteman missiles carrying 1.3 megaton nuclear warheads with a range of over 6,000 miles.

US Army operator/maintainers work on an MGR-1 Honest John surface-to-surface rocket.
Soldiers fit tail fins onto the body of a MGM-29 Sergeant SSM

10 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.

  2. Thank you for this information. My dad served his duties here and I was able to see what he was involved in. He passed many years ago and I did not get an opportunity to share with him. Thanks Joe Hubbard

  3. in the late 40,s 1946-47 my dad was a paratrooper in training on the east coast in the 101 airborne, preparing for a 2 nd invasion, should the first one have failed. due to a training accident, he was transfered to white sands missle range in about 1946 where he was a mechanic on the V-2 rockets, Unfortunately we have no pictures of my dad while there due to the secrurity concerns, He did recall to me the German scientists who arrived on base, also recalled the V-2 that went off couse and landed in Mexico, and finally he like to tell about the adventures he had chasing down V-2 s for recovery of the debris using a tank as pursuing vehicle.

    It would be wonerful to hear from any on who might have known my Dad and worked with him, He passed away in El Paso, over 45 years ago. We miss him so much, and we are so proud of him.

    Tom Warner

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