The four NASA-sponsored sounding rockets launched at White Sands during the past two weeks(March-April 1997) to study comet Hale-Bopp all proved to be very successful. The final rocket, which had been rescheduled from March 25, was launched at 9:55 p.m. on April 7.
All four rockets performed as they were supposed to by propelling their payloads (experiments) to altitudes ranging from 175 miles to 240 miles. The altitudes reached vary depending on the weight of the payload and wind conditions at the time of launch.
The payloads all collected great amounts of data from the comet. Researchers said it will take weeks or months to analyze all the information they received.
The experiments were built by the University Colorado, Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio, Tex., Johns Hopkins University and the University of Wisconsin. They all looked at the comet in areas which are not covered by other telescopes and instruments.
In addition to the science which was being conducted at White Sands, the rockets attracted a great deal of local and national attention. For the first launch on March 24, six local television stations in addition to CBS network news showed up for a media day. Also, local newspapers and specialty writers were in attendance.
Many local residents took advantage of the opportunity and watched the two-stage rockets blast off. Many simply watched from their homes in places like Alamogordo and Las Cruces. The night shots were all very visible from local communities. Others drove closer, watching from the roadblocks on U.S. Highway 70 or from San Augustin Pass on 70.
The missile range also invited local residents to come onto the main post and watch from the parade field bleachers. These visitors were about 12 miles from the launcher and heard the actual countdown over a loud speakers system.
One thing some watchers commented on was that the rocket appeared to tip and fly towards them. Jim Eckles, missile range public affairs, explained that this was just an optical illusion caused by looking up into the sky and tipping your head back. He says this is a common misunderstanding and that all the rockets and payloads landed back on the range just the way they were supposed to.