Testing at White Sands involves much more than firing rockets and missiles. In fact, in the past few years, one of the missile range´s labs has done considerable testing for the automobile industry.
First of all, the military is very concerned about the battlefield survivability of its communications systems, vehicles, computers and other electronically based systems. If someone were to explode a nuclear bomb in the upper atmosphere, one of the byproducts of the blast is a very powerful electromagnetic pulse covering millions of square miles. This pulse induces an electrical charge in material which conducts electricity -- like the components of a computer or battle tank.
If the pulse is strong enough, the electronic components can be fried or severely damaged. It is very possible, then, to have such a high altitude nuclear explosion from which personnel will suffer no ill effects but they may be out of business because none of their electronic gear will work.
At White Sands, the Nuclear Effects Directorate has the capability to simulate and evaluate the various effects of a nuclear explosion -- including the electromagnetic pulse. For example, when the Abrams was being developed as the U.S. Army´s main battle tank it was put through extensive electromagnetic testing at the missile range. Its electronic components were protected by various "hardening" techniques during development so they would survive very powerful pulses. The test and evaluation done at White Sands validated the adequacy of the "hardened" design.
Electromagnetic pulses and fields exist in our everyday lives, but are much weaker than the ones found on a battlefield. For instance, kitchen appliances and televisions produce electromagnetic fields. Citizen band radios and cellular phones all radiate electromagnetic pulses when they are transmitting. Even garage door openers emit weak electromagnetic pulses when they are used.
These devices can interfere with one another if they get too close to each other. This is why most airlines do not allow passengers to operate computers, stereos and other electronic devices when the plane is landing and taking off. The emissions from these electronic devices could interfere with sensitive electronic gear on the airplane.
Automakers were concerned about common sources of electromagnetic radiation in relationship to the airbag mechanisms, anti lock brakes, computers, etc. found in most cars today. For example, they wanted to make sure that a driver´s day wasn´t ruined because the car´s airbag went off in his or her face while going 65 mph just because the guy in the next car dialed up a cellular phone, a trucker used his CB radio or they drove past a radio station.
So, the missile range has subjected computer chips and whole cars to all kinds of electromagnetic radiation in order to prove that such devices will not fire unintentionally.
When the testing first started several years ago range officials thought it was a good story and asked the automobile companies if the range could invite the news media out. The answer was a firm, "No."
Not only can we not tell you much about the testing, at the request of the companies, but range personnel report the automakers sometimes arrive with their cars wrapped in brown paper so no one can see them. Apparently some of the cars are advance models and manufacturers don´t want anyone to see the new designs until the appropriate time. Secrecy wears many hats and is certainly no stranger to business.
At a time of cuts in the military this commercial testing has been welcome at White Sands and contributes to maintaining the current workforce.