Cold War-era memories meet the future

White Sands Missile Range has the latest missile technology even as it displays the history of missile warfare. Photos: White Sands Missile Museum

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
TULAROSA BASIN, N.M.--I grew up in the Reagan era, and in my early years, I recall being quite scared of the idea of nuclear war, or at the very least, all-out conventional war, with the Soviets.

So, for me, visiting the White Sands Missile Range in south-central New Mexico on Friday was a bit of a challenge: how could I come face to face with some of the very instruments of the Cold War without being overcome by the fear of my childhood?

It turns out adulthood goes a long way toward muting such worries. Visiting White Sands was more an exercise in nostalgia than anything else. And that's partly because while the facility is very much operational and in fact home to some of the world's most advanced military technology, I wasn't allowed anywhere near it.

Rather, I was given a tour of the range's museum and missile park--the only parts of the facility open to the public, though I required an escort so that, as a reporter, I didn't sneak off and reveal any secrets--as well as an old, decommissioned gantry that used to be used to launch rockets.

White Sand Missile Museum

Don't get me wrong: What I saw of the facility (which covers 100 miles by 40 miles) was pretty impressive. Even the parts of the range's headquarters I wasn't allowed to visit looked high-tech and cutting edge, while also appearing incredibly mundane.

One example was the Cox Range Control Center, a super highly classified building that's the "single point of control for all missions conducted on the range," according to the facility's Web site. Among the things that happen at the control center are real-time data processing, air space surveillance, control of telemetry for drone formations, and computing that generates "state-of-the-art graphics for display of mission scenarios that will depict airborne targets, interceptor missiles, the virtual range land mass and instrumentation location and coverage."

I didn't get to visit the control center, but I did drive by it on the way to the gantry, and it was very interesting: a normal-looking office building with a parking lot full of normal cars and trucks. The only difference was that it was surrounded by concrete barriers and had an array of electronics on the roof that looked capable of running a full-scale war. I don't know what I was expecting out of such a facility: some super modern, sleek black, all-glass compound?

Anyway, that's neither here nor there. For some background, White Sands Missile Range is an unusual military base in that it employs only about 400 active-duty military personnel, with about 3,200 contractors and 2,700 Army civilians contributing to the work, according to Camilla Montoya, the public relations representative who took me on a tour.

Montoya explained that the range, which is in the shape of a long rectangle oriented south to north, is still very much active in missile testing. In fact, she said, there's a live test almost every other day, usually shooting south to north. Since the range's inception in 1945, she said, there have been more than 45,000 tests of missiles and rockets.

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So why is the range where it is?

It's the terrain, she explained. The site is tucked neatly into New Mexico's Tularosa Basin, with perfect boundaries on both sides: the Sacramento mountains to the east and the San Andreas mountains to the west. In other words: it's in a giant bowl with no possibility for encroachment.

But since there are live missile tests happening all the time, and a fairly major road, U.S. Highway 70, passing through the range, it is often necessary to shut down the road for an hour or two to accommodate live explosive weapons passing overhead. You wouldn't want to be driving down the highway with your family and have a missile explode alongside your minivan, now, would you?

Montoya told me that because the missile range is entirely on land, it's possible to recover all debris from the tests by flying helicopters out to do retrieval. Still, on the way into the headquarters, you are warned by friendly roadside signs that there may be live munitions still lying around and that you'd do better to keep to the roads. I think I may have gulped on reading that.

Among its other notable features, White Sands Missile Range is one of only two facilities in the country that owns its airspace into infinity. The other is the White House. That means there is no commercial traffic flying overhead. Montoya said the range can, at its discretion, hand over some high-altitude space to the Federal Aviation Administration, but she couldn't remember that ever happening.

Another thing I thought curious was how Montoya--and the facility's Web site--refer to the organizations that use the range (the Army, Navy, Air Force and NASA) as "customers." An odd term, it seemed to me, given that the facility is a U.S. military base. But it turns out it's operated by the Department of Defense, and the Army, Air Force, et al., contract for its services, along with a small number of defense contractors, such as Raytheon.

For NASA, the range offers a place to land the Space Shuttle. In fact, the New Mexico range is No. 3 on the landing priority list after the Florida and California options. And once, back in 1982, the shuttle did land at White Sands. Last December, it looked like it was going to happen again, but with 20 minutes to go, the decision was made to land the shuttle in Florida. Oh, well.

As for practice targets, White Sands offers many. Montoya said the range offers "customers" tracked targets, tanks, vehicles and drones to shoot at. There's even a 3-mile-long piece of Kevlar cable hanging between two mountain peaks that targets can be hung from.

And should it be necessary, White Sands has a chamber that can simulate any kind of weather condition on Earth to see how various weapon systems will be affected.

This is not your father's military base.

After all, how many military facilities include the Trinity site, where the first-ever atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945? White Sands, does, though I was not taken to visit the site.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw the missile park--a fine collection of display pieces of old weapons like the Pershing missile, a Patriot missile battery, a Nike Hercules, an M198 Howitzer, an Athena and dozens more. This park, which is visible from the road leading into the range, seems to say: "The U.S. can kick your butt. Don't mess with us." And it's quite impressive, even for someone who grew up fearing what the existence of these weapons might mean some morning if either the Soviet or U.S. leadership woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

Perhaps the most wistful moment during my visit was when Montoya took me to the retired rocket gantry.

It was from there that the range would fire rockets like V-2s, which were modified from their original World War II-era German weapons system to be used for space exploration. There are only six left in the country, Montoya told me, and White Sands has the most complete one. Indeed, it is a beautiful thing, laid out on its side at the range's museum with its innards on display, but sporting a spiffy yellow paint job and looking every bit as vital as it ever was.

At the gantry, an old rocket--I didn't find out which kind--stands proud, designed to make this site look real. The metalwork towers over the rocket, and you almost think that at any moment, you'll hear a countdown, the engines will fire and it will blast off.

That is not to be. These days, this gantry is for display purposes only.

Except. At the top of it, barely visible, was a great-horned owl, sitting regal and looking down. It turns out this owl is part of a family of four that lives in the gantry, lording over it and making sure all is well. In a facility that trumpets its high-tech credentials, this was the perfect low-tech counterpoint.