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astronautix.com Beyond the Vapor Trails


"BEYOND THE VAPOR TRAILS"
By Don Estabrook
14 September, 1954

I. The Locality

The State of New Mexico has long been identified by the appealing expression "The Land of Enchantment" and, to the tourist, it seems a truly befitting name, for one finds natural beauty all the way from the rugged forested and snow capped peaks in the northeast, to the arid fantasy of cactus speckled desert lands in the south. Landmarks of particular interest include the Elephant Butte Dam (and reservoir) just south of Albuquerque, the White Sands National Park and the colorful Organ Mountain range in the southeast corner of the State, not far from El Paso.

Let’s focus our attention in this locality, for here lies more than meets the eye. Here in one of the hottest and driest sections of the nation, in silent, spacious and desolate desert-nothingness, the wheels of science are turning. Men and women spend untold hours to perfect the operation of a variety of guided missiles, the basis for eventual progress in the field of space (or Interplanetary) travel.

On any ordinary day, one would probably pass hurriedly and uninterrupted over a highway from Las Cruces to Alamogordo hardly even noticing a road marker reading – "U.S. Army Ordnance Corps – White Sands Proving Grounds" at a corner near the foothills of the Organ Mountains. One would best pass right along by it anyway, since the sign also says "No Admittance" – "Restricted Area". To those who know WSPG, this entrance is indeed "a road to adventure", for here on the day of a "Shoot" the insider is in the midst of dramatic activity while miles distant, the motorists are delayed at a mountain pass barricade waiting in the blistering heat for the "all clear" signal to be sounded from a military vehicle. Glancing anxiously skyward, any impatient driver might observe (on a clear day) the evidence of another missile test in progress as a wisp of a vapor trail winds its way in a jagged, windblown course toward the stratosphere.

Losing the white trace at that altitude beyond which only the silent optical and electronic devices of the proving grounds can "see" its source, one might find himself wondering many things. - - - - What activity precedes such a zero-hour event? What follows it? These and other questions may be partially answered by integrating many details of an unclassified nature into a comprehensive picture of the proving grounds and some of its typical activity.

II. The Range

First of all, a bit on the range and facilities of WSPG: Since the area is primarily a government military base, the tiny settlement of 2500 in the shadows of the Organ Mountains resembles most any other military colony plus what might be compared to and industrial area – with hangar-like shops and modern laboratories – in general, a conglomeration of Army and Navy style structures. Just as rifle practice is done on a "range" so it is with the guided missile. For testing purposes the missile range of WSPG covers at least three thousand square miles, scattered through the midst of which are innumerable installations of highly accurate and complex tracking devices capable of photographing the flights which reach even beyond one hundred mile altitude, radar-tracking and plotting instruments, a myriad of rare and common photographic equipment, communications systems with numerous transmitting or receiving installations, as well as observation stations and weather stations.

Also on the range (at one edge) is the most important of all areas, namely the launching site. Here is the "point of departure" for all flights and accordingly here lies the most complex of all installations, the "Blockhouse" building in which are housed the necessary electrical equipment for testing and launching a variety of missiles, the circuits of communication needed to coordinate all operations of a flight, recording equipment as well as a great deal of space for personnel to operate same.

The Blockhouse is of reinforced concrete walls and roof – 12 to 27 feet thick with long, narrow, six-inch (6") thick glass windows deep within slit like wall openings and with double vault-like steel doors. Geographically, the range lies between two mountain groups and is in a generally North-South direction, at a safe distance from the base itself. Elsewhere in the vicinity, high on a rugged slope of the Organ Mountains is nestled a special multi-million dollar test area of an unusual nature, one designed to handle static (or tied-down) burning tests for missiles up to such sizes as yet are not even in existence. This concrete "citadel" in the mountain side might easily be mistaken for a Tibetan Monastery; but down under the mountain, within its maze-like corridors are facilities for conducting many a hazardous test behind the protective confines of thick walls with only an indirect and partial mirror view of the apparatus subject to the test outside.

III. The Program Scope

Flights made or attempted at WSPG are naturally conducted with a specific purpose in mind and quite frequently the purposes as well as the missiles themselves are a highly classified matter. In general, flights might be grouped into two types however;

  1. Development flights to check and register progress in a particular phase of work.
  2. Informative flights to obtain upper-atmosphere data for a government agency or a civilian scientific research group.

Flights of the number 2 category are the ones most frequently openly announced, sometimes even shown in newsreels and on TV. Among these are flights of the ex-German V-2 (Americanized).

With the receipt of a document called a "flight proposal", White Sands Proving Ground may institute preparation of a missile to execute a chosen task – to serve a specific purpose. Lets assume a proposal for a V-2 flight has been placed calling for an attempt at reaching a V-2 altitude record using any possible expedient to accomplish this. First of all, lets take a look at an average V-2 and its characteristics – what sort of vehicle are we dealing with? It has dimensions and weight exceeding those of any other missile yet unveiled by the military being 46.5’ to 50’ in length (dependent on the size of the experimental apparatus compartment on the nose), 5.5’ in diameter, weighing approximately 5 tons empty and 14 tons with a complete fuel load aboard.

The unit is bullet shaped with four enormous tail-fin stabilizers with moveable control surfaces for flight guidance within the atmosphere. There are four sturdy carbon vanes extending into the jet stream for flight steering during the sixty second burning time of the propulsion motor. The missile is capable of reaching 3700 MPH, by the end of the powered flight interval. The propellant liquid fuels are contained in two tanks: Alcohol of high purity and liquid oxygen at 200°F below zero. The high-speed turbine driving the fuel pumps is powered by steam generated from a chemical reaction between hydrogen peroxide and potassium permanganate.

IV. Advance Preparations

In the seven weeks of preparation for a flight, there are numerous and varied operations needed to fabricate and test a missile as well as to coordinate the activities of supporting groups in and out of the base. From the warehouses are drawn the essential components either of original German-made sources or replacements for German parts of American design all to be assembled in accordance with engineering directives, carefully planned to accomplish the desired flight characteristics. The assembly shop bristles with activity as the parts are cleaned, tested and prepared for use – items such as valves, pumps, turbines, piping, electronic control devices, motors, gyros, batteries, etc. in an almost endless list. Soon the engineering design is finished to accommodate the installation of the experimental instrumentation chamber for a high altitude test by one of the country’s universities (the chamber has special circuitry requirements) – then the wiring plans are ready for the shop and assembly begins.

Now, one by one, the larger assemblies – the propulsion burner with its multi-valve piping, the pumps and turbine, the tanks, the burner control circuits, the electronic components and gyros, the endless tangle of cables from nose to tail and, of course, the outer casings – all start fitting into their respective places. At the same time, the photographic needs and tracking requirements have been determined and other groups of personnel begin making their preparations throughout the range. Some plan the accident and fire safety precautions needed – still others work on handling security provisions, food, transportation, recovery operations, visiting observers, details for visits of outside personnel assigned to the project, weather reporting and many similarly essential details. Finally within the week proceeding the firing day, the missile is ready to weigh, balance and load in advance of a long haul to the launching area. Upon the arrival of the V-2 at the launching site, the pulse of the activity is understandably more rapid and a bit tense, for the big day is now nearing.

To put this monster of the missile family in its vertical firing position on a five foot launching table from its horizontal posture in the "Meillerwagen" is the first operation to complete. The German built V-2 carrier simplifies this task by virtue of its hydraulic rack arrangement similar to a dump truck tilt system. Once in place, the rocket is lined up and rotated into the final pre-flight position on the stand. All items too heavy or delicate for the wagon ride now may be installed. Testing and firing connections may be hooked up to the BlockHouse circuits and controls – including communications for test work.

Now the final phase can begin – that of completing every test short of actually firing the system – check, double check and triple check all prior to launching day – nothing is left untested – everything is replaced that seems at all questionable, until it would seem that perfection is surely a certainty – yet these are merely preliminary. For such operations, a towering self-powered rolling framework of ladders and platforms is moved into position around the V-2. This is known as a "Gantry Crane" containing lighting for night work, hoists for aid in assembly work, and even a canvas to shield the missile over night against wind blown sand or rain.

V. The D-Day Activity

Long before sunrise on firing day the Navy personnel for activities at the launching area come on duty and towards 4:00 a.m., everyone is ready to begin making a ten hour sequence of final checks following a prepared chart of timed operations from "X" – 600 minutes on down toward "X" (or zero-hour). The blockhouse’s loud speaker crackles out – "Beginning launching activity now at X-600 minutes. – Start Circuit Checks".

In the cool desert morning’s pre-dawn silence, under the "floods", a swarm of workmen start removing canvasses, opening compartments and making test connections on all levels of the Gantry crane. There is not a wasted motion for every moment counts and there is a clock-like precision to the procedures as the tests are begun with unmatched care and thoroughness, truly indicative of the import and finality of each action.

By X-300 in mid-morning, the final system checks are being made preparatory to loading of fuel. If anything occurs requiring more than the normal allotted time, the clocks are stopped and an announcement blares out; for example – "Holding at X-245". By the time every connection has been made for its last time, the firemen are on hand and set for an emergency. An approximate three-hour interval for loading of nine tons of fuels begins – this is when the pressure and tenseness really mounts because mistakes could be fatal and danger lurks on every turn. When the last of the fumes are vented out after fuel loading, the batteries go into place and are checked – the various hatches and ports are sealed for the last time and, on top side, the last inspections of the electronic and instrumentation compartments are made.

All personnel except two on the upper level and the firemen clear the area while the exploder circuits for the self-destruct dynamite charges are connected. These charges will serve to destroy the missile in the air if it goes awry and heads off range; or else, on the downward and final part of the flight to remove the nose end of the missile such that the V-2 will strike the ground with considerably less violence (slowed by air friction). This operation always is left until just before moving the Gantry Crane away and is, of course, extremely dangerous. The same two men on top side guide the suspended cables containing the connections from Block House to missile over the Gantry’s railings such that they are left hanging gracefully and unobstructed from the nose to a tall pole near the rocket as the Gantry Crane slowly withdraws several hundred yards. There stands the solitary V-2 in gleaming white with a fog like wisp of liquid oxygen pouring from the vent below the launching table. Now the carbon vanes can be installed and the steering circuits re-aligned to compensate for the change in temperature, which has already affected them. Also the firing igniter is prepared and put in place.

VI. Zero Hour

It is now (X-20 minutes.). All personnel are inside the Block House – all external test equipment and "ground support" equipment has been put away and moved out of harm’s way – the Gantry stands empty and expectantly in its "parked" position. Inside the control room, it is a veritable beehive of excitement and action with tension dense enough to cut. Signals of range safety networks are coming into the monitoring switch board – communications are humming with contacts to all points of the range – last minute weather checks, reports of radar or camera troubles or readiness, etc. – all weigh delicately on the timing from now ‘till "X". Personnel are turning on their portions of the missile’s equipment to warm up – the announcer reads "X-15 minutes coming up – X -15 – mark! Turn on recording amplifiers, fire fifteen (15) minute warning flare, lock BlockHouse doors, make final weather check".

So on it goes, minute by minute, at X-5 all are asked to start silence, as the final interval of close-timed events begins. The Range readiness board is under continual monitoring, for all the stations. "Ready" lights must be indicating green – rather than red (meaning "Hold") before the last three- (3) minutes. At X-3 the last flare goes up and the base sirens are sounded. Personnel take their positions for either operating equipment or observing. During this period the firing desk and the missile (through the window) have been under continual surveillance by the firing man.

Safetymen have been standing by water valves to control outside spray lines for emergency. At X-30 seconds the one-second countdown begins. At X-20 seconds the firing operational sequence is started at the firing desk – the firing man calls out the completion of each operation (or in the event of trouble, shuts down the whole sequence). At approximately "X" outside the Block House, the first licks of white and yellow flames are observed as the igniter falls free and the "preliminary stage" is in progress - the initial stage of burning during which there is not enough power to lift the missile, but there is opportunity to decide whether the flame is of proper uniformity and intensity to permit continuing the launch. This is an important split-second decision and one upon which the success or failure of the extremely expensive flight fully depends.

The firing man makes the decision and pushes the last button "Main Stage". At this point all earthly connections are dropped by the missile and it stands shuddering under it’s own power as the roar of its combustion motor reaches a deafening pitch. The call "rocket away" is sounded as the slender vehicle parts company slowly but steadily with the launching site, gathers momentum quickly and is suddenly lost from vision at the Blockhouse window. Only the roar persisting above serves to approximate what it is doing, until the radar station starts reporting on altitude. At a predetermined distance "all clear" is announced and BlockHouse personnel not otherwise occupied may dash outside to watch the fast disappearing spec threading its vapor trail into the heavens.

Inside the recorders are keeping electronic contact and the radar station continues to report the progress of the flight. Within five (5) minutes the flight has ended, but that is not the end of the work.

VII. After the Event

After the shoot a "recovery" party heads for the crash scene by jeep, guided to the proper location by aircraft above, this is often a 50-mile cross-desert jaunt (no roads existing, unfortunately). Here salvage operations retrieve parts of equipment needed for analysis and any films or classified portions for security reasons. If it was a successful flight there are plenty of good experimentation records to analyze; if it was not, there are operational records to analyze and wreckage to examine and diagnose.

And so it goes – continually repeated for the advancement of science in a world that is searching – Beyond the Vapor Trails.


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Last update 12 March 2001.
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© Mark Wade, 2001 .