I am a Las Cruces transplant, originally from England via Qatar where I met and married my husband. We moved here six years ago for his new job at White Sands Missile Range. When my husband first suggested that we move to Las Cruces, I’m not going to lie, I was concerned that there was nothing to do here and was it a safe place to raise our family? Well, my first impressions were soon changed when I did my research, and learnt about the space history in this area and the potential of Spaceport America.
Lying a few miles east of the Organ Mountains is a sign that welcomes visitors to White Sands Missile Range, the birthplace of America’s missile and space program. It’s an accolade that very few people know about but space, and the continued exploration of the Universe, has long been a strong influence on industry in the region and particularly in Las Cruces.
It amazes me that after six years of being here I still meet people who have no clue about the space history of this region. I recently shared the first image of earth taken from space on the Las Cruces Space Festival Facebook page. It was quickly shared and reached thousands, and people were messaging me in amazement that the image was taken from here on October 24th, 1946 by a rocket launched from White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). The German V2 Rocket, captured by America in WWII, reached an impressive 105km above the ground.
In the same year as the V2 rocket launch, renowned astronomer Clyde Tombaugh moved to Las Cruces to work on tracking telescopes used to photograph rockets and missiles during test flights. Tombaugh is widely known for his discovery of Pluto in 1930, but he also discovered other celestial bodies and developed instruments such as the IGOR (Intercept Ground Optical Recorder), which remained in use at WSMR for the next 30 years.
Tombaugh moved to the Physical Science Laboratory (PSL) at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in 1955 to study ‘Near Earth Satellite Search’ which assured NASA that there were no natural satellites or debris that could interfere with sending rockets, and eventually humans, into space. He led the effort to build the Tortugas Observatory which still sits at the top of ‘A Mountain’ looking over the East Mesa. Tombaugh taught at NMSU until his retirement in 1973 and continued to study the Universe from his backyard observatory in Mesilla until his death in 1997. His ashes were later sent to space on-board the New Horizons probe in 2006, destined for Pluto.
In 1963, NASA established the White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) in the western foothills of the Organ Mountains. The original primary mission of the facility was the support the Apollo Program. Since then, WSTF has supported many other NASA programs and projects, including the Space Shuttle, the Space Station, and Orion, along with testing commercial programs, including Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner Crew Vehicle. Today WSTF primarily participates in propulsion systems testing and often their testing can be heard across the Las Cruces valley.
50 miles southwest of Las Cruces lies a maar volcanic crater with ties to NASA’s Apollo Space Program. A maar crater is one that is broad and shallow, typically filled by a lake, formed by an eruption with little lava. Kilbourne Hole and its neighbor Hunt’s Hole were used by NASA to train Apollo Astronauts. NASA used the volcanic fields during exercises on how to observe pertinent geological features and collect samples that Astronauts later used during missions.
Apollo 12 Astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad and Alan L. Bean and support crewman Edward Gibson trained at Kilbourne Hole in April 1969, ahead of their successful lunar landing in November of the same year. Apollo 12’s Richard Gordon, 14’s Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 15’s David Scott and James Irwin, Apollo 16’s John Young and Charlie Duke and Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and New Mexico’s Harrison “Jack” Schmitt all trained at Kilbourne Hole ahead of their missions.
While Las Cruces and the surrounding region holds a prominent place in America’s space history, it also continues to gain international attention with the prospects of future space exploration. In 2006, construction began on vertical launch site facility at the ‘World’s first commercial Spaceport’ with competition of the horizontal launch facility completed in 2011. Spaceport America hosts hundreds of international students every June for the Spaceport America Cup and the World is watching for future space flights from its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic.
Today, November 4, a Boeing Starliner emergency abort system was successfully tested at White Sands Missile Range. This test was used to demonstrate the Starliner Spacecraft’s ability to recover from an emergency when carrying astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA. NASA hopes that Boeing and SpaceX will be able to launch crew to the ISS next year.
You can find out more about the early history of rocket launches in Las Cruces at the ‘Home on the Range:
Ranches to Rockets’ exhibition opening this Thursday, 5-7pm at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum. The 2020 Las Cruces Space Festival will run March 30th- April 4th, and aims to ‘make space for everyone’ while educating the community about the exciting developments in space in this region; past, present and future.
– Alice Carruth, Executive Director