In October 1985 the National Park Service notified the Department of the Army that Launch Complex 33 (LC-33), located 6 1/2 miles east of post headquarters, at White Sands Missile Range was now a National Historical Land mark. Two years earlier on Feb. 16, 1983 the complex was named a State of New Mexico historical monument. The designation was based on the fact the launch complex was this country´s first major rocket launch facility. Work conducted at LC-33 started a chain of events in the United States that led to orbiting satellites, manned space flight, trips to the moon and the space shuttle. The complex consisted of a blockhouse, several concrete launching pads, a 100-foot tall launching tower for small rockets, gantry and blast pit.
BlockhouseThe blockhouse was designed by Dr. Del Sasso, a group of CAL Tech engineers and White Sands Proving Ground´s first commander, Lieutenant Colonel Harold Turner.
Construction of the Army blockhouse began on July 10, 1945 and was completed in September at a cost of $36,000.
It was built of reinforced concrete, its firing control room had walls 10 feet thick, and a roof 27 feet thick at its apex capable of withstanding the impact of a large rocket, such as a V-2, falling from an altitude of 100 miles at a speed of 2,000 miles per hour.
The blockhouse consisted of a 937-square foot firing control room housing firing controls, monitoring and communications equipment, and test personnel. It had three viewing ports made of blast proof safety glass, a blast proof door, and a roof wash-down system designed to decontaminate the building in the event of a rocket explosion. The room was mechanically air conditioned and electrically heated. A multiplicity of three-inch diameter conduits provided wiring access to the north and east launch pads.
A 1158-square foot communications room was added on in 1947 and stood to the rear of the firing control room, with two-foot thick walls and a three-foot thick ceiling, which served as the focus of all range communications and data transmission facilities.
Another addition to the blockhouse in 1947 was a small room attached to the west wall of the firing control room. This room housed a four-stage, 3,000 P.S.I. air compressor and six storage tanks for supplying compressed air to the launch pads. From the pads the compressed air was piped directly into waiting rockets during the prelaunch fueling process.
While the blockhouse was being built, a 100-foot tall launch tower for the WAC Corporal rocket was erected north of the blockhouse and directly east of what was to be the first launch pad for the V-2 in 1946. A Tiny Tim booster developed for the WAC Corporal was the first rocket to be fired out of the completed tower in addition to being the first rocket fired from the launch complex on Sept. 26, 1945 at 10 a.m. After completion of the WAC Corporal program the tower was dismantled leaving only three foot pads where it once stood.
The V-2 GantryIn December 1945 the Army completed plans for a test facility and a gantry crane that could be used to directly service rockets up to 54 feet high. Actual construction of the gantry began in August 1946 and was completed in November at a cost of $38,000.
The gantry crane consisted of two open steel towers, each 60 feet tall and tied together at the top by an open steel truss. The dimensions of the gantry are 63 feet tall and 28 feet wide. Three pairs of adjustable work platforms between the towers could be swung down to encircle a rocket, and, for rockets higher than 54 feet, two outrigger platforms could provide access to one of the rocket´s sides. The platforms were reached by stairs and ladders, and the top truss had a 15-ton chain hoist for servicing the work platforms. Two one-ton outboard service hoists provided additional lifting capability.
The gantry crane was equipped with fire fighting, communications, low pressure air, electrical service, and propellant handling equipment. It rested on four pairs of 400-pound rail wheels, each connected to electric drive motors that moved the structure at slow pace up and down the crane´s 500- foot track.
During the preparation of a Corporal missile launch, a wheel broke in half when the gantry was being moved down the track. It took all night and two 15-ton jacks to lift one corner to replace the broken wheel.
Construction of the blast pit, formally called the 20,000-pound motor test and launch facility, began early in 1946 with the excavation of a 35-foot deep pit. The pit´s walls were lined with reinforced concrete two feet thick, and its rear wall covered by two foot wide overlapping steel plates. The platform over the pit, from which rockets were tested or launched, had an opening 7 feet square. Exhaust gases passed into the pit and were there redirected up and out across the desert. A sprinkler helped quench the rocket blast by spraying water into the pit. There is no record of the facility being used to test or launch a V-2, but it was used for other rocket programs of that period.
Other FacilitiesOther facilities at the launch complex included two sets of gantry crane tracks - one north of the blockhouse which began just east of the 1946 V-2 launch platform going northeast into the desert. The second set joined the first and then went due south ending at the blast pit. In 1947 the first set of tracks located adjacent to the 1946 V-2 platform was moved and attached to the set of tracks at the blast pit continuing to go south ending east of the blockhouse at the 1947 V-2 platform.
An observation tower was built south of the blockhouse in 1945 but was removed in 1947. Foundations for a second tower were put in place west of the first V-2 platform. However, the tower was never built. A short stretch of railroad track running parallel of the blockhouse going north was installed in 1945 but removed in 1947. A launch site for the Hermes missile program was located directly east of the second V-2 platform.
The first test flight of a V-2 from LC-33 took place on April 16, 1946 at the first V-2 platform. Other rockets and missiles which have used the complex as a launching point have been the Corporal E, Corporal, Nike Ajax, Hermes, Lance, Honest John, Multiple Launch Rocket System and the Army Tactical Missile System.
It Is Still Used TodayThe site is still used by the range´s Materiel Test Directorate in support of weapons testing. Currently both the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and the Army Tactical Missile System (Army TACMS) use the launch complex. In addition the Dynamics Laboratory has shaker tables located on the west side of the complex.
A Hermes A-1 missile, currently on loan to White Sands from the Space and Exploration Department of the National Air And Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., resides directly under the gantry at the blast pit.