White Sands Missile Range Museum and National Park

Unknown Fields (UF) is a design studio, originating in London’s Architectural Association, that "ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies." Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men and publisher of Strange Attractor, has just led this busload of architects, writers, filmmakers and artists in an exploration of the mythic landscape of the American Southwest, and the stories that it has inspired. Their trajectory took them from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque New Mexico to Black Rock City, Nevada, via sites of military, architectural and folkloric significance. Mark sent us occasional postcards from the edge. - David Pescovitz

White Sands Missile Range Museum and National Park

Whitesands1947 America’s space program started here in 1946 with the aid of a few dozen German rocket scientists, imported as part of the highly-secret Operation Paperclip. The apex of their WWII achievements was the enormous V-2 rocket, which housed its devastating cargo in an elegant back and yellow casing. An original 1946 V-2, cut-away to reveal the intricacies of its thrust and steering mechanisms, forms the centerpiece of the museum collection. Over the next 20 years Paperclip team leader Wernher von Braun built ever-larger missiles, climaxing with the Saturn and Apollo rockets that took America to the Moon.

As its curator reassures us, White Sands’ on-site museum is “not your typical military museum”; as well as a housing a wealth of missile related technology and ephemera, it has sections dedicated to the local flora and fauna, including the African Oryx released into the wilderness in the late 1960s to entertain hunters and wreak environmental destruction; the indigenous peoples who once lived on the land, (many of the earliest inhabitants disappeared in the 16th century as the once verdant lands turned to desert), and a room of paintings by a survivor of the brutal Bataan forced march of WWII, in which up to 10,000 Pilipinos and 650 Americans died at Japanese hands. Outside is the rocket garden, housing a number of missiles, rockets and drones used in combat from WWII to Gulf War I, including personal favorites like the ever-reliable Ryan drone, the monumental Redstone Cruise Missile, and the saucer-shaped Viking Mars Decelerator.

Following the museum the Unknown Fields team engaged in workshop activities amongst the gypsum dunes of the White Sands themselves, formed from the remains of a 250 million year old shallow sea. As part of our training for future hostile environments, we fought off hordes of aggressive red ants, made sand circles on which to land our RC drones, buried one team member alive, and tested the effects of exposure on another as he ran naked across the shifting desert sands.


  1. When I was stationed at Canon AFB many moons ago, I got to meet Col. Staap of rocket sled fame. Really nice guy, and very interesting.
    Also went to a really cool model railroad museum in Alamogordo that was run by an old Paperclip German guy. Also very nice, but didn’t want to talk about the past.

  2. My family and I visited the museum nearly 20 years ago. I seem to remember an animatronic solider that greeted guests at the door.

  3. I lived with my family in Las Cruces in the late 1950s as my dad worked at White Sands. We have lots of photographs of my sister and I playing in the sand. 

  4. Wait, what?   “Redstone Cruise Missile?”    Are you sure you’re not talking about the Redstone ballistic missile?  Or maybe the GE Hermes?  At least one of the Hermes series had a ramjet in the second stage, so it could be considered an early cruise missile.

  5. I’ve just come back from a month tour of the Southwest (from the UK) and I have to say that White Sands stands as one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen in the US. The Homeland Security check point didn’t put me off, but man, to be so close to some heavy military industrial complex history, and have a hike around the white sands…mind blowing!

    On another note, can anyone answer my quandry…there doesn’t seem to be a word (telling perhaps) for one who is in love with the USA, e.g. Francophile etc etc. Any thoughts?

    I say this because, well, see above…

    1. http://ask.metafilter.com/17569/Whats-the-word-for-a-fan-of-the-USA

      As you are presumably an Englishman, you have traditional rights to coin such a word, which will then be cheerfully ignored, misused, misspelt, and/or mispronounced by Americans.

      If you like the culture of the North East United States preferentially, “yankophile” might be appropriate, but personally I’d use “usaphile” in tribute to Wright, Butler, Law, and Zamenhof. Pronounced “oo-sah-file” to match Usonia, Usonian, or usono.

    2. there doesn’t seem to be a word (telling perhaps) for one who is in love with the USA

      Two words – Prime Minister.

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