Kennedy, Gregory P. The Rockets and Missiles of White Sands Proving Ground, 1945–1958. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7643-3251-7.
Southern New Mexico has been a centre of American rocketry from its origin to the present day. After being chased out of Massachusetts due to his inventions' proclivity for making ear-shattering detonations and starting fires, Robert Goddard moved his liquid fuel rocket research to a site near Roswell, New Mexico in 1930 and continued to launch increasingly advanced rockets from that site until 1943, when he left to do war work for the Navy. Faced with the need for a range to test the missiles developed during World War II, in February 1945 the U.S. Army acquired a site stretching 100 miles north from the Texas-New Mexico border near El Paso and 41 miles east-west at the widest point, designated the “White Sands Proving Ground”: taking its name from the gypsum sands found in the region, also home to the White Sands National Monument.

Although established before the end of the war to test U.S. missiles, the first large rockets launched at the site were captured German V-2s (December 2002), with the first launched (unsuccessfully) in April 1946. Over the next six years, around seventy V-2s lifted off from White Sands, using the V-2's massive (for the time) one ton payload capacity to carry a wide variety of scientific instruments into the upper atmosphere and the edge of space. In the Bumper project, the V-2 was used as the booster for the world's first two stage liquid rocket, with its WAC Corporal second stage attaining an altitude of 248 miles: higher than some satellites orbit today (it did not, of course, attain anything near orbital velocity, and quickly fell back to Earth).

Simultaneously with launches of the V-2, U.S. rocketeers arrived at White Sands to test their designs—almost every U.S. missile of the 1940s and 1950s made its first flight there. These included research rockets such as Viking and Aerobee (first launched in 1948, it remained in service until 1985 with a total of 1037 launched); the Corporal, Sergeant, and Redstone ballistic missiles; Loki, Nike, Hawk anti-aircraft missiles; and a variety of tactical missiles including the unguided (!) nuclear-tipped Honest John.

White Sands in the forties and fifties was truly the Wild West of rocketry. Even by the standards of fighter aircraft development in the epoch, this was by guess and by gosh engineering in its purest incarnation. Consider Viking 8, which broke loose from the launch pad during a static test when hold-down fittings failed, and was allowed to fly to 20,000 feet to see what would happen (p. 97). Or Viking 10, whose engine exploded on the launch pad and then threatened a massive explosion because leaking fuel was causing the tankage to crumple as it left a vacuum. An intrepid rocketeer was sent out of the blockhouse with a carbine to shoot a hole in the top of the fuel tank and allow air to enter (p. 100)—problem solved! (The rocket was rebuilt and later flew successfully.) Then there was the time they ran out of 90% hydrogen peroxide and were told the first Viking launch would have to be delayed for two weeks until a new shipment could arrive by rail. Can't have that! So two engineers drove a drum of the highly volatile and corrosive substance in the back of a station wagon from Buffalo, New York to White Sands to meet the launch deadline (p. 79). In the Nike program, people worried about whether its aniline fuel would be sufficiently available under tactical conditions, so they tried using gasoline as fuel instead—BOOM! Nope, guess not (p. 132). With all this “innovation” going on, they needed a suitable place from which to observe it, so the pyramid-shaped blockhouse had reinforced concrete walls ten feet thick with a roof 27 feet thick at the peak. This was designed to withstand a direct impact from a V-2 falling from an altitude of 100 miles. “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?”

And the pace of rockets going up was absolutely frenetic, almost inconceivable by the standards of today's hangar queens and launch pad prima donnas (some years ago, a booster which sat on the pad for more than a year was nicknamed the “civil servant”: it won't work and you can't fire it). By contrast, a single development program, the Loki anti-aircraft missile, conducted a total of 2282 launches at White Sands in 1953 and 1954 (p. 115)—that's an average of more than three a day, counting weekends and holidays!

The book concludes in 1958 when White Sands Proving Ground became White Sands Missile Range (scary pop-up at this link), which remains a centre of rocket development and testing to this day. With the advent of NASA and massively funded, long-term military procurement programs, much of the cut, try, and run like Hell days of rocketry came to a close; this book covers that period which, if not a golden age, was a heck of a lot of fun for engineers who enjoy making loud noises and punching holes in the sky.

The book is gorgeous, printed on glossy paper, with hundreds of illustrations. I noted no typographical or factual errors. A complete list of all U.S. V-2, WAC Corporal, and Viking launches is given in appendices at the end.

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