The White Sands of New Mexico

Atomic science, white sands, missiles and space travel…..part one of my travels in New Mexico.

October 31st, 2011

My grandfather and I used to watch Bugs Bunny cartoons together when I was a kid. Bugs would always say “I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque” and I can finally say I actually did take a left turn there, before heading south in New Mexico!

I then continued south on the I-25 stopping on the way in the curiously named town of Truth and Consequences. It is a spa town that was once called Hot Springs but in 1950 changed it’s name to that of a radio show to win a contest for the show to be broadcast from the first town to change its name! It stuck and for years after the host of that show, Ralph Edwards would visit for some sort of festival in the town.

Strange highways

After 3 hours of driving I arrived in Las Cruces in the south of the state (second largest city in New Mexico) just before sunset, and got to see some spectacular colours on the nearby Organ Mountains (a rugged saw tooth like mountain range), then I grabbed some Chinese dinner at the Empire Buffet – this provided an unexpected eventful evening! Apart from the staff being very friendly and talkative, 2 young guys decided to do a runner without paying, cops came, got details from the waitress, then 20 minutes later had both the guys and made them pay! Nice free entertainment, just like a live episode of Cops!

Organ Mountains Las Cruces
Organ Mountains - Las Cruces

November 1st, 2011

30 minutes east of Las Cruces is the White Sands Missile Range a massive military complex where in the northern section the first nuclear detonation occurred at the Trinity site in 1945 and missiles and rockets have been tested there ever since. This is what they call an open base i.e. you can visit it, and on site there is a missile park and museum which has a vast array of the various missiles, rockets, drones, aircraft and vehicles that have been tested on the range (and a replica of “Fat Boy” one of  the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan to end WW2).

Missile Park White Sands New Mexico
Missile Park

In one building they have a restored V-2 rocket, a German design used in WW2 that was used by the US after they captured over 200 rockets and  parts at the end of the war (this was quite interesting as they were found in an area the Soviets  were due to occupy, so the Americans transported the rockets out of there quick smart and shipped them home). To assist in the development of the rockets German  scientists such as the famous Wernher von Braun (designed numerous early US rockets leading to the mighty Saturn rockets that took man to the moon) who were initially captured by the allies at the end  of WW2 were transferred to the US in 1945.

V-2 Rocket Missile Park White Sands New Mexico
V-2 Rocket

Within the range is also the incredible White Sands National Monument which is where the name of the area comes from. Gypsum sand that is perfectly white forms this part of the desert. The gypsum is washed down from the surrounding mountains, when the water evaporates the dried gypsum is then broken down by strong winds and blown across the area to form sand dunes. These rolling dunes are massive covering 275 square miles. The rolling white sand dunes are an impressive sight, especially the way the sun casts shadows upon them and a it’s a lot of fun climbing the dunes, running/sliding back down them! It is also fascinating what plant and wildlife lives amongst the dunes. To top it off whilst I was there the USAF was flying F-22 Raptor fighters overhead along with German Luftwaffe Tornado attack aircraft that are both based at the nearby Holloman Air Force Base. I tried to visit this to see their Heritage Air Park – which has a Stealth Fighter amongst other aircraft that were all once based there. Alas it’s not an open base, so unless you know someone who is based there you cannot enter. Oh well!

White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument

I found it interesting that just before the entrance to the White Sands National Monument (from the missile range side) there was a checkpoint, not a military one, but one manned by Homeland Security. They ask you a series of questions to confirm who you are and what you are doing there, plus check your identity documentation (and vehicle where required). I gather this security is here because of the close proximity to the border of Mexico to check for “illegal aliens”, luckily for me I am a “legal alien” (such strange terminology they use here) and was allowed to pass through!

White Sands National Monument New Mexico
White Sands National Monument

My final port of call for the day was just a bit further east in Alamogordo and the New Mexico Museum of Space History. High up above the town, with a mountain backdrop this 4 story museum has an interesting collection of space artefacts and displays that cover New Mexico’s contribution to space travel and rocketry. Displays include a large chunk of moon rock, astronaut and cosmonaut space suits and the capsule that held HAM the first Chimpanzee launched into space, poor little fella, it must have been terrifying for him – luckily he survived and lived out his days in a zoo (his name was an acronym for Holloman Aerospace Medical Centre).

HAM Alamogordo New Mexico Chimpanzee in space
HAM capsule

Outside the museum is the space park which has numerous rockets including the Little Joe II rocket which tested the Apollo rocket Launch Escape System, missiles, the “Sonic Wind” rocket sled and the Daisy Track (an air-powered sled-track used to study the effects of acceleration and deceleration on the human body). The museum is also home to the International Space Hall of Fame.

New Mexico Space Museum Alamogordo Little Joe II Sonic Wind
Space Park - Little Joe II and "Sonic Wind"
New Mexico Space Museum Alamogordo Daisy Track
Daisy Track

So that’s a wrap on my first couple of days in New Mexico. In the coming days I will be exploring the Carlsbad Caverns, visiting Roswell for a bit of kooky UFO entertainment, checking out old Fort Sumner, then heading north back to Albuquerque and maybe Santa Fe and Los Alamos.


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