By Loretta Hall
New Mexico’s sky has always been captivating. Not only beautiful to look at, it was historically useful for predicting the changes of seasons for agricultural planning. A thousand years ago or so, observatories were built by the Jornada Mogollon people in the southeastern part of the state and the Ancestral Puebloans in the northwest. Rocks were aligned to track the movement of certain stars, the sun, and the moon. Observation points were marked to note key positions of celestial bodies in relation to natural notches in distant mountain ranges.
During the past century, modern observatories have been built throughout the state to gather information about the nature of objects and energies in outer space. The data gathered by optical and radio-wave telescopes allow scientists to explore distant parts of the universe. The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array west of Magdalena is perhaps the most prominent example. Built in the 1970s and upgraded in 2011, this movable array of huge dish antennas has been used to examine 80 percent of the Earth’s sky.
Looking at the sky from Earth is one thing, but sending spacecraft to explore regions beyond this planet is another. Researchers working in New Mexico have contributed significantly to that effort for nearly a hundred years, beginning in 1930 in Roswell.
Dr. Robert H. Goddard, a physics professor in Massachusetts, had a vision—one might even say an obsession. Inspired by reading books by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Goddard envisioned the marvelous potential of humans to travel to our moon and other planets. He committed himself to doing everything he could to make that possible. At that time, rockets were powered by solid fuels such as gunpowder or saltpeter. That worked well enough for small rockets used for ceremonies, celebrations, or as war weapons—but Goddard recognized that such fuels were not powerful enough to propel vehicles away from the Earth. He dedicated his life’s work to developing more powerful liquid-fuel rocketry. He began experimenting with rockets fueled by gasoline, using liquid oxygen to support combustion.
By 1929, Goddard’s first few rocket test flights in Massachusetts were impressive enough to frighten people who lived nearby, and the state fire marshal prohibited any future tests. Unwilling to give up his work, Goddard began searching for a new location. He needed a place with expanses of level, wide-open spaces, little vegetation to limit fire potential, sparse population to limit fear and possible injury, generally good weather all year round, and railroad access for bringing in supplies. A relatively high elevation would be helpful too, as it would reduce the amount of fuel needed for each launch. After consulting with weather experts and the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, who had flown over much of the country, Goddard settled on Roswell as the best choice.
Goddard set up operations in Roswell in 1930 and began conducting experiments involving rocket propulsion, flight stability and steering mechanisms, and parachutes. With the help of his wife, Esther, and a few employees, he made dramatic progress with liquid-fuel rocket performance. He launched the first manmade vehicle to travel faster than the speed of sound in 1935, and one of his rockets reached an altitude of nearly 9,000 feet in 1937.
World War II interrupted Goddard’s rocket research, but similar work was being pursued in Europe by then. In particular, Germany’s Nazi regime created a liquid-fuel rocket development program led by Dr. Wernher von Braun. Their premier result was the V-2 missile, which could deliver a ton of explosives to targets up to 200 miles away. The extent to which that missile’s design was derived from Goddard’s inventions is unclear, but when Goddard saw captured parts of a V-2 in 1945, he noted their remarkable similarity to his inventions. This could have resulted from copying his work or simply from simultaneous but independent invention.
By the time Goddard left New Mexico in 1942, the U.S. Army at White Sands Proving Ground (WSPG) was developing its own liquid-fuel rocket, the WAC Corporal. Its designers had consulted with Goddard for advice. The Army missile was intended for scientific research of the upper atmosphere. The 1945 test flights of its solid-fuel booster rockets and then the WAC Corporal itself were the first rocket launches at the White Sands facility.
About a year later, New Mexico hosted the next major advance in rocketry for space exploration. At the end of World War II, von Braun and more than a hundred of his colleagues surrendered to the U.S. Army in Germany. Under Operation Paperclip, they were brought to this country and assigned to White Sands Proving Ground to work with American scientists and engineers in further developing their V-2 missile and other rockets. Three hundred train car loads of German missile components, launch equipment, and research documentation were brought to WSPG.
One result of that collaboration was the world’s first two-stage, liquid-fuel rocket in 1948, known as the Bumper project. Its first stage was a modified V-2, and the second stage was a WAC Corporal. In one test at WSPG, the second stage reached an altitude of 244 miles and a speed of 5,100 miles an hour. In 1950, the Bumper project was transferred to a new launch facility in Florida, and the New Mexico-developed rocket became the first vehicle launched from Cape Canaveral.
Space exploration research in New Mexico reached a new, broader level after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created in 1958, the same year that White Sands Proving Ground was renamed White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). At last, plans were underway to send people into space, as Goddard and von Braun had long dreamed. Projects planned and carried out in New Mexico were keys to the success of that effort.
Suborbital rockets launched at WSMR during the next decade tested the ability of various devices to withstand the forces of rocket launch and reentry, and to operate correctly in microgravity (commonly called weightlessness).
Since 1946, research at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo has centered on biological factors related to spaceflight. In 1953, Dr. John Paul Stapp became head of the Aeromedical Field Laboratory at Holloman, where he conducted much of the research and oversaw the rest. Stapp’s personal interest was in the effects of rapid acceleration and deceleration on the human body. He devised several types of equipment to study this topic using animals and human volunteers. He always tested an experiment on himself before allowing other men to experience it, in order to ensure its safety.
Stapp was the only subject for his most famous human experiments. In 1954, he rode a rocket-propelled sled on Holloman’s high-speed test track in three successively more severe acceleration /deceleration tests. The ultimate run came that December. Stapp was strapped into an unprotected seat on the sled, wearing a standard Air Force flight suit and a helmet with a full visor. His arms, legs, and head were secured. Then nine rocket engines on the back of the sled ignited for five seconds, propelling him to a speed of 632 miles an hour. Just after the rockets shut down, the sled hit a water brake section that brought the sled to a complete stop in one and one-quarter seconds. During that stop, Stapp experienced 25 Gs of sustained deceleration that actually peaked at 46 Gs for a fraction of a second. He sustained broken blood vessels in his eyes, but was back to essentially normal health by the following day.
This daring experiment proved the human body’s ability to withstand far more powerful forces than would be experienced during rocket launch and reentry. (Experience would later show that maximum acceleration forces in manned space flights of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were about 7 Gs; and the greatest deceleration forces were about 11 Gs.)
In spaceflight, an astronaut would experience not only acceleration and deceleration forces, but also the virtual absence of the force of gravity. Scientists worried that blood would not circulate adequately in that condition, or that an astronaut might not be able to swallow food or drink. Or they might become so disoriented in an environment with no up or down that they would be unable to do their required tasks. To explore these possibilities, airplane pilots at Holloman became proficient in flying a series of steep vertical arcs that produced half a minute of microgravity at each apex. Volunteers riding in the plane’s cargo bay could try eating, drinking, writing, and doing other essential activities.
There was one other important project developed at Holloman called Manhigh. Led by Dr. David Simons under Stapp’s command, it demonstrated the feasibility of constructing a space capsule that could protect an astronaut during an extended stay in the cold, low-pressure, radiation-exposed environment of a space-equivalent altitude. The capsule also required an oxygen regeneration system and communications capabilities. During the most successful of the program’s three manned flights, a 200-foot-diameter, helium-filled balloon carried the capsule to an altitude of more than 100,000 feet (19 miles). Simons stayed at a very high altitude for twenty-three hours of the thirty-two-hour flight. The program’s three flights demonstrated not only the performance of the space capsule but also the ability of a trained person to function effectively in a small, confined space at a great distance from the ground.
Through these and other experiments with animals and humans, researchers in southern New Mexico verified that spaceflight was humanly possible. By 1959, NASA was ready to select its first astronauts, who would fly into near-Earth space in the Mercury program. Using selection criteria expanded from ones used in the Manhigh project and drawing on a pool of potential candidates who were military test pilots, NASA narrowed its choices to thirty-two men. (Women were automatically excluded because they could not be military pilots at that time.) The next step was conducting medical exams to ensure these men were in “excellent physical condition,” which was one of the selection criteria.
NASA chose Dr. William Randolph (Randy) Lovelace II to design and conduct the test regimen at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque. Lovelace had been developing oxygen equipment for pilots in high-altitude flight since the late 1930s. By 1958, he was chairman of NASA’s Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences. The Lovelace Clinic had already been conducting secret physical exams for pilots of the ultra-high-altitude U-2 spy planes, and its staff had developed a machine-readable card system that made analyzing the astronaut candidates’ test results very efficient.
Beginning in February 1959, the astronaut candidates came to the Lovelace Clinic in groups of half a dozen, each group being tested for seven and a half consecutive days, with each day’s tests lasting eleven hours or more. Lovelace described the regimen as “one of the toughest medical examinations in history.” Not knowing exactly what physical challenges spaceflight would present to the human body, the doctors examined basically everything they could think of. This process not only revealed the overall health of each candidate, but it also provided baseline measurements that could be compared with post-spaceflight examinations to identify any possible physical effects.
Of the thirty-two candidates examined at the Lovelace Clinic, eighteen passed “with no medical reservation.” After psychological examinations and physical stress tests in Ohio and further interviews, seven men were chosen to be America’s first astronauts.
As NASA moved forward through its Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space programs, crews in New Mexico continued to test new generations of equipment. Seats astronauts would sit in during Apollo launches were evaluated on acceleration/deceleration devices at Holloman Air Force Base. Essential instruments to be used on missions to the moon were subjected to rocket launches, landings, and brief exposures to the space environment at WSMR. Recovery of payloads proved to be a major challenge, as they often landed far from the target location and the impact could bury them in the sand upon landing. In the mid-1960s, specially trained dogs were used to find the payloads, which had been coated with a distinctive scent. This novel approach was highly successful, with a recovery rate of 96 percent.
The Soviet Union sent a cosmonaut on a one-orbit flight before NASA conducted its first two manned suborbital flights, and then sent a second cosmonaut on a seventeen-orbit flight before NASA’s first manned orbital flight. Nevertheless, NASA chose to proceed with an abundance of caution, sending a human surrogate on each type of flight before sending a human. A chimpanzee named Ham took a fifteen-minute suborbital flight in January 1961 before Alan Shepard became America’s first man in space. Another chimpanzee, Enos, flew a two-orbit mission later that year, before John Glenn became the first orbiting astronaut in February 1962. Ham and Enos, along with several other chimpanzees, had been trained at Holloman Air Force Base to endure spaceflight and to perform mental and physical tasks during their flights. In both of the chimps’ flights, malfunctions caused the animals unexpected stress, yet both performed their assigned tasks almost flawlessly. Ham the Astrochimp is buried at the New Mexico Museum of Space History beneath the flagpoles.
In the haste to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s pledge of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to the Earth by the end of the 1960s, the three phases of NASA’s first manned space program overlapped. As the Mercury program was validating orbital spacecraft and humans’ ability to function in space, the Gemini program was being planned and prepared. Its missions would also be in Earth’s orbit, but would test equipment and procedures for extravehicular activities (spacewalks) and docking of two orbiting spacecraft. Preparations for the Apollo missions, with larger crews ultimately reaching the moon for landings and lunar orbiting, actually began as early as 1962, the same year as the first Mercury orbital flight. During all that time, Holloman and WSMR played active support roles.
In preparation for the Apollo moon landings, engineers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque began developing procedures in 1963 for making sure the landing modules did not contaminate the lunar surface with foreign materials. They also helped develop and test radioisotopic heaters that would provide necessary warmth for equipment left there by the first human visitors.
Also in 1963, NASA built its own propulsion systems development station on the edge of the WSMR property outside of Las Cruces. Rocket engines designed for use in the Apollo program were evaluated in static tests at this White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) before being approved for use in actual launches.
After the last Apollo missions in 1972, NASA shifted its crewed space activities to Earth-orbit operations. The space shuttle vehicle was developed to serve first as an orbiting laboratory and then as a transportation vessel to carry astronauts and supplies between the Earth and the International Space Station (ISS). In fact, more than two dozen shuttle missions delivered modules used to construct the ISS in low-Earth orbit.
New Mexico figured prominently in the space shuttle program. WSTF staff tested materials and components that would be used in the shuttle’s propulsion, power, and life-support systems as well as payloads and experiments to be carried on missions by the shuttle and the ISS. The facility even has a team of smell testers that evaluate objects for potential unpleasant odors in the confines of crewed spacecraft or the ISS.
White Sands Space Harbor, a facility operated by WSTF using a pair of runways on WSMR property, became a practice facility for landing shuttles starting in 1976. The shuttles landed as gliders, so the astronauts flying them had only one chance to make a safe landing. This made actual training flights, as well as those done in stationary simulators, crucial. Four Gulfstream II airplanes were modified to fly like a space shuttle would during landing, and the cockpits were outfitted as replicas of shuttle cockpits. Before each shuttle mission, the astronaut assigned to land the craft had to complete 1,000 landings in the training aircraft. Most of these practice sessions were at White Sands, although some were also done at the primary shuttle landing sites of Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Edwards Air Force Base in California.
In addition to being a major training facility, White Sands Space Harbor was the contingency landing site for each space shuttle mission during the program’s duration from 1981 to 2011. If both Kennedy Space Center and Edwards Air Force Base were unavailable as landing sites, White Sands would be used. Although only one shuttle actually landed at White Sands, in 1982, crews and equipment were assembled and ready at the end of every shuttle mission in case they were needed.
During its thirty-year history, the space shuttle program experienced two disasters with the losses of the Challenger during its 1986 launch and the Columbia during its return from space in 2003. After both incidents, scientists and engineers at Sandia National Laboratories helped determine the causes of the catastrophes and develop equipment and procedures for preventing similar events.
So far, humans have explored space in person only as far as the moon. But people in New Mexico have helped explore objects and environments much farther away by means of unmanned space probes. Scientists and engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have played major roles in those endeavors. For example, as early as the mid-1950s, they began trying to develop nuclear power for rocket propulsion in Project Rover. Nuclear power would dramatically reduce the weight of the fuel needed to power the rocket and provide propulsion for a much longer period of time. While it has not yet been feasible to use nuclear power for rocket launch, other applications of nuclear power have proven enormously useful in long-duration, unmanned missions to distant planets, asteroids, and comets.
One nuclear application developed for spacecraft at Los Alamos was radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These devices can generate electricity to power instruments on the spacecraft and to provide heat in the extreme cold of deep space. RTGs have been used in many space exploration projects including the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes launched in 1977. Both are still gathering and transmitting data, now from interstellar space. RTGs also powered the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions launched in 1972 and 1973 that performed the first flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. RTGs were also used on the New Horizons mission to Pluto in 2015. A replica of the spacecraft is on display inside the Tombaugh Education Center at the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
Both Goddard and von Braun saw the potential for electric propulsion of spacecraft by creating charged ions that would be expelled from the spacecraft to produce thrust. Ion propulsion produces a very small amount of thrust; but operating continuously for a long period of time, it can propel spacecraft to very high velocities. LANL employees have worked on developing ion propulsion systems. During the Deep Space 1 mission, which launched in 1998, LANL-developed instruments and analysis determined that ion propulsion could be used without interfering with operations of the scientific instruments on board.
Robotic explorations of Mars have been the next best thing to going there in person. Dr. Larry Crumpler of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque knows that better than anyone. A planetary geologist, he was a member of the Mars Exploration Rovers team that operated Spirit and Opportunity on the red planet from their landings in 2004 until Opportunity’s last communication in 2018. A rare exact duplicate of one of the rovers is on display at the museum in a realistic Mars-like setting constructed of soil and rocks gathered from parts of New Mexico.
Until relatively recently, American space exploration has been the purview of NASA. New Mexico, however, has been at the forefront of a new generation of commercial space exploration. Just over thirty years ago, in March 1989, a NASA scientific mission first used a commercially built and launched rocket that took off from White Sands Missile Range. Even the payload integration was performed by the contractor, Space Services. From that beginning, New Mexico has been a leader in the development of commercial spaceflight.
The brief descriptions in this article give just a hint of the crucial contributions New Mexico researchers and engineers have made to space exploration for nearly a century. Each of the topics mentioned here can be explored in far greater depth for a better understanding of their details.
But the state’s involvement is even broader than the locations and facilities mentioned here. Staff members at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo have created a “New Mexico Space Trail” to more fully document important sites throughout the state. A map showing fifty-two historic sites can be downloaded at NMSpaceTrail.org. The sites include ancient astronomy installations, twentieth-century observatories, museums, Apollo astronaut training sites, and other test and launch facilities, as well as all of the places described in this article.
Use the New Mexico Space Trail as a roadmap to further explore New Mexico’s unique, prolific history of space exploration. Some of the sites are not open to the public, but you can visit them virtually through books, articles, and museums. As New Mexico continues its leadership role in space exploration through its growing commercial space industry as well as its ongoing contributions to its traditional partnerships with NASA, it is useful to understand how that leadership position evolved.
Loretta Hall is the author of four space-related books including Out of this World: New Mexico’s Contributions to Space Travel and Miguel & Michelle Visit Spaceport America.