With more than 40,500 rocket and missile firings safely conducted during 50 years of existence, White Sands Missile Range has certainly lived up to its name.
One of the most asked questions is, "What is the difference between a rocket and a missile?" Range employees usually simplify the discussion by saying a missile has a guidance system or brain to get it to its destination and a rocket just goes where it is initially pointed.
The guidance system can be fairly simple like the infrared seeker on the small, shoulder-fired, Stinger missile. The missile detects the heat emitted in the exhaust of a jet and guides itself to the hottest spot - right up the tailpipe.
A rocket, on the other hand, like the Black Brant goes straight up in the air carrying scientific payloads for NASA and others. It is fired out of a tower or from a rail, both of which can be tilted to compensate for wind conditions so the rocket flies fairly straight and stays on the missile range.
Missiles are usually divided into four large categories: the surface to-air missile; the surface-to-surface missile; the air-to-air missile; and the air-to-surface missile. All four types are tested at White Sands.
A surface-to-air missile is traditionally one fired from the earth´s surface to shoot down airplanes. The Stinger, Patriot, Chaparral, Nike Ajax, Nike Hercules, Talos and Hawk are just a few examples of surface to-air missiles tested at White Sands.
A surface-to-surface missile is one fired at ground targets. The old German V-2 rocket was one of the original surface-to-surface missiles and could carry a 2,000-pound explosive to a target 80 miles away. Other surface-to-surface missiles tested at White Sands include the Loon, Redstone, Sergeant, Corporal, Lance, Pershing and Army Tactical Missile System.
An air-to-air missile is fired by one aircraft against another. Some air-to-air missiles tested at the range are the Sidewinder, Genie and Falcon.
Like the air-to-air missiles, the air-to-ground missiles are typically developed and tested by the Air Force and Navy. At White Sands we have tested the Crossbow, Hound Dog, Mace and SRAM (Short-Range Attack Missile).
All of the missiles mentioned so far are on display in the range´s Missile Park. In addition there are other weapons and vehicles on display which were once tested at White Sands. For instance, the Copperhead is a cannon launched projectile which guides itself to the target by homing in on reflected laser light. All the developmental firings for Copperhead were accomplished at the White Sands Small Missile Range located north of U.S. Highway 70.
The TOW (Tube launched, Optically tracked, Wire guided) missile is an interesting example of a weapon being deployed on many platforms. It has been man-packed, mounted on jeeps and other ground vehicles, and placed on helicopters. It is intended to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles.
These and other items can be seen in the White Sands Missile Park on any day during daylight hours. The park is located just inside the north missile range gate with access from U.S. Highway 70. To drive your car onto the range you must have a valid driver´s license, proof of insurance and a current registration.