It’s (White) Sand, Jim, but not as we know it….

Our next stop was Alamogordo. As we crossed the Sacramento Mountains, we could see a strange whiteness on the flat plain below us, kind of like very low cloud, which seemd somewhat odd on a bright sunny day. It took us a while to cotton on that we were actually looking at White Sands. Doh – the clue’s in the name!

Anyway, first things first. As well as being home to the White Sands National Monument, this area is rocket central… Whereas last week we crossed the top of the White Sands Missile Range heading East, now we were approaching the bottom of the White Sands Missile Range heading West. The land was taken over by the US Government in 1946, this apparently being the only place in the United States that could meet the requirements for a very large flat area well away from any population centres with good weather (and in particular good visibility) year-round. The weather has certainly been good; whereas Carlsbad was warm, Alamogordo was positively toasty during the day and well above freezing at night. It’s hard to believe that we’re only 50 miles or so South of Lincoln.

We stopped first at the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

This had loads of good stuff outside; I won’t even attempt to list all the various rockets, missiles etc that we’ve seen in the last couple of days (or I may be in danger of missing the flight to Costa Rica on 20 January!); I’ll stick to the highlights…

We’ve watched a few episodes of Guy Martin: Speed recently. I thought he was a nutter, but his escapades seem positively risk-averse compared to some of the stuff that’s been done here….. For example, back in the early 1950s, researchers wanted to find out about the effects of sudden deceleration on the human body, which would be important for re-entry etc. We saw the Daisy Track, employed in insane deceleration experiments using sleds on a very short track:

We also saw the device used by Dr John Paul Stapp in December 1954 to launch himself to 632mph in 5 seconds (a land speed record) then stop in 1.4 seconds (yes, that decimal point IS in the right place) exposing himself to 46.2g in the process. Incredibly, he survived unscathed, and is one of the people listed in the inductees in the International Space Hall of Fame at the museum….

Moving on, here’s Mark in a reproduction Mercury capsule (used for the first sub-orbital and orbital flights in the early 1960s). The maximum height for astronauts was 5 feet 10 inches, so Mark’s a bit tall…. I wouldn’t fancy being put alone into one of these and stuck on top of a rocket…….

An F-1 Rocket Engine; five of these powered a Saturn V rocket (which launched the Apollo moon missions). Top fact: 5 of these produce 190 giga watts, 630 times the maximum power of a Boeing 747… gulp…..

Outside the museum, we also saw the grave of HAM, the World’s first astrochimp. I do have a special interest in the unusual exploits monkeys/apes given my family relationship to Jackie.

Note: Jackie was a Chacma baboon who joined the South African Army with his owner Albert Marr (who moved to South Africa with his family as a child from Northwich, Cheshire; he’s related to me on my mum’s side). Jackie’s exploits during and after World War 1 (where he served in the trenches alongside Albert, underwent an amputation following a shrapnel wound, and toured Britain to raise money for the Red Cross) were amazing (he’s well worth googling)…..

Anyway, HAM was bought by the US Army in 1959 and was 44 months old when, in January 1961, he was put into a capsule on top of a Redstone rocket and launched from Cape Canaveral to reach a speed of 5800mph and an altitude of 155 miles in his 16 minute flight. Not only did he survive but he lived until 1983. All very impressive and it was nice to see that he’s been given a proper little grave, but I think he’d have had to have actually piloted the capsule to have outdone Jackie (though maybe I’m biased due to the family connection…..).

Mark was like a kid in a sweet shop inside the museum. There were lots of very interesting and informative exhibits, including some really good information and videos on gyroscopes… It was very quiet in there (we only saw a couple of other visitors) so Mark got a free hand to play with all the toys…. Here he is failing to land the Space Shuttle…. (though I managed it in novice mode… ner ner ne ner…. neither of us had a hope of doing it in intermediate mode, but we are sure this is merely due to a lack of clear instructions…..):

There was a thing with a big metal plate you stood on to witness the noise and shaking of a launch….. Mark went straight for the Space Shuttle…. This thing really did “rumble”; we’d heard it and felt the building shake when we were on the level above (it’s a top-to-bottom museum) and wondered what the heck it was…..

He even ran into the kids’ dressing-up area and insisted on donning a helmet and having his photo taken:

Finally, Gene Roddenberry was the most recent inductee to the Hall of Fame, so there was a small Star Trek display and video with astronauts etc saying how they were inspired by Star Trek as kids….. No need to worry; despite Mark’s best efforts the teleporter didn’t work so he’s still here…..

We continued on to the White Sands National Monument, which is by far the biggest gypsum (yep, the stuff you get at B&Q) dune field in the World, covering around 300 square miles. We found out all about the particular geological and climatic conditions that mean it formed here, and explored the 16 mile scenic drive.

As we were preparing to leave, shortly after sunset, two young guys pulled up next to us and asked if we wanted a sled. Naturally Mark was ecstatic with this freebie, so we stopped off at White Sands National Monument again as we were leaving Alamogordo the next morning to give it a good try.

The result: sledging on gypsum is very very sedate, even by my standards. If it’s excitement you’re after I’d suggest sticking to snow….

The sled suitably rehomed, we continued up the main road and reached the White Sands Missile Range museum. Getting in here was a major faff. Why did they not just put the museum outside the gates to the base? We had to go into an office, hand over out passports and wait ages to be allowed in (despite being the only ones there). We didn’t think the US Army’s administrative machinery could have coped had a coach party showed up….. We then got lengthy instructions about what we could and could not photograph…. Unfortunately, we were specifically forbidden from photographing the entrance gate, which was a shame as that’s the first thing I’d done when we’d arrived and parked. Oops. We couldn’t see what could possibly be top secret other than the slouching stance and general disinterest of the guards…..

The range of missiles etc on view outside was impressive, as was the V2 rocket (this was where much of the work on the V2 was done after the War with parts recovered from Germany and a good few German scientists on hand).

We picked up some good written material on the Missile Range and the Trinity site, but the interior of the museum building was otherwise quite poor……..

Onwards and West-wards……