How White Sands Missile Range Launched the Atomic Age

May 10, 2023Jenna Biter
White Sands Missile Range

US Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan Haden, 74th Fighter Squadron commander, prepares for takeoff in an A-10C Thunderbolt II, on Dec. 3, 2014, at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. US Air Force Photo by Airman 1st Class Ryan Callaghan.

It was 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945. A blinding light flashed across the New Mexico sky. Searing heat rolled across the desert. Boom. Residents heard the ear-splitting sound more than 100 miles away, and some Texans saw the flash nearly 200 miles away in El Paso. 

Back at the remote blast site, a fireball mushroomed more than 7 miles into the air. Dubbed the Trinity test, the explosion at what would become White Sands Missile Range marked the first detonation of a nuclear bomb. The Atomic Age was underway. 

Because Trinity was highly classified, the military required a testing site so remote that detonating the world’s first atomic bomb wouldn’t draw attention. New Mexico’s flat and isolated Jornada del Muerto desert basin fit the bill.

White Sands Missile Range

The Trinity mushroom cloud, July 16, 1945. National Security Research Center photo.

Though locals were suspicious after the July 16 blast, the military explained away the test as an accidental explosion of a remote ammunition depot. The public wouldn’t learn the truth about Trinity until after the United States dropped Little Boy and Fat Man on Japan almost one month later. Exploding a nuclear weapon on US soil would later be called the best-kept secret of World War II.

The Trinity test was the first and only nuclear detonation at White Sands Missile Range, but it was only the beginning for the military testing site. In the decades since World War II, the US military has conducted more than 42,000 rocket tests at White Sands, earning the installation its title as the “Birthplace of America’s Missile and Space Activity.”

Related: How Israel’s Iron Dome Protects the Country

A Massive Missile Range

White Sands Missile Range, or WSMR, is the US military’s largest overland range. In fact, WSMR (pronounced wiz-mer) is the military’s largest installation, period. Situated in southern New Mexico, the Army-operated proving ground covers nearly 3,200 square miles of sprawling high desert, an area roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

White Sands Missile Range

A Medium Extended Air Defense System missile is launched to intercept a target during a test at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, on Nov. 29, 2012. White Sands Missile Range photo by John Hamilton.

The state-sized testing site is so large that almost 60% of a national park lies within its borders. President Herbert Hoover designated a 275-square-mile plot of gypsum dunefield — the world’s largest — as White Sands National Park in 1933, more than a decade before the Atomic Age began. Both the park and missile range derive their names from the dunefield’s glaring “white sands.” 

Since the range’s creation, the national park and military installation have had to coexist. The park closes down when missiles are being launched. In addition to visiting the dunefield, civilians can also visit WSMR, and even the Trinity site, but only a few times during the year. Many people visiting the area stay in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a city only 26 miles from the range’s southwestern border.

Related: Rocket Power: M270 MLRS Brings the Rain

Sci-Fi at White Sands

At the end of World War II, American rocket technology was lagging, but winning the war would soon put the US ahead. The military brought 100 captured long-range German V-2 rockets to WSMR, where 67 of them were test-launched between 1946 and 1951.

Columbia Space Shuttle

The Columbia Space Shuttle on Launch Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida, during loading tests for STS-3, the spacecraft’s third mission, on Feb. 25, 1982. NASA photo.

With the help of Wernher von Braun, the German scientist who pioneered the V-2, those tests would kick-start America’s journey into the cosmos. Since 1964, more than 400 different rocket engines have been tested on-site. NASA’s Columbia Space Shuttle would even touch down at WSMR after eight days in orbit.

But that 1982 landing would be the first and last time NASA landed a shuttle at WSMR. Even after a thorough cleaning, Columbia was so riddled with gypsum that dust was found onboard the spacecraft up until it exploded in 2003.

Then, in 2009, WSMR plunged into the sci-fi deep end when a Cold War–era solar furnace melted a slab of granite to test the tech’s ability to potentially vaporize an incoming asteroid. The 2009 test was successful, but the 11th-hour option would have to undergo more serious trials to truly be considered as a viable doomsday intervention. Still, thanks to WSMR, Earthlings — and definitely Americans — can sleep a little more soundly at night.

Read Next: Operation Deep Freeze: America’s Mission to Antarctica

Jenna Biter
Jenna Biter

Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.

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