A deep rumbling rolled across the cloudless sky and I looked up to see the black triangles. Twelve of them flew from left to right in my field of view in four formations of three. The Lockheed Martin F-117A Nighthawks, based at Holloman Air Force Base nearby, were going somewhere and en masse. Beneath my feet and stretching out to the horizon the eerie whiteness of the White Sands National Monument gave a other worldliness to the experience.
The Tularosa basin, in which the monument sits, is perhaps the second most secret, most talked about location for conspiracy theorists after Nevada’s Groom Lake, Area 51. Security was certainly evident driving through the desert towards the home of the US Air Force’s most secret weapons. But it wasn’t what you’d think. Although I was deep in New Mexico I came across a border control point on the route north from Las Cruces to White Sands.
The border guard informed me that the Mexican border was only about 40 miles (64km) south of our location but forgot to mention that at the time we were also only three weeks away from an election for state governor. Still it seemed odd to me to have a border control point so far into the country. After all, Mexicans haven’t been the kinds of aliens most people have associated with the New Mexico triangle of Roswell, Socorro and Alamogordo.
On the way to Roswell from White Sands is the town of Alamogordo and its New Mexico Museum of Space History. Well worth a visit and you can’t miss it, it is located on the slopes of the Sacramento mountains on the western side of the basin. The rocket exhibit outside its angular silver building has a Little Joe 2, the Apollo programme’s launch abort test rocket, and soon it will also have a replica of Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne. But at its support centre, inaccessible to tourists but not Flight, is some far more interesting specimens of rocket history.
Forty years ago the rusting broken missile in front of me was the cutting edge of US technology in the race with the Soviets for the conquest of space. A missile, like the one before me, had been fitted with a capsule that would carry a man, Alan Shephard. But the really interesting part of this relic of space history was not the pointy end but the rear.
While in Russia in 2004 I had the chance to see an R-7 up close. The R-7 was Russia’s follow on from the Vengeance-2. Looking at the Redstone I suddenly saw the common Nazi heritage both machines possessed. Graphite thrust diverters. Today rocket engine nozzles are gimbaled, they can be moved slightly to divert the thrust. But in the early days of the space age they used four of these graphite vanes to divert thrust for flight control.
Reaching White Sands Missile range museum I could find the origins of that key cold war technology. In its own special building is one of the world’s remaining complete V-2 weapons.
According to the blurb there are only 19 complete examples left of this weapon that rained death on London and various other European cities in the Netherlands, Belgium and France but also led to the historic landing of Apollo 11.
The WSMR museum’s missile park holds a number of historic vehicles from the first cruise missile based on the Nazi’s V-1 Buzzbomb to the first surface to air interceptor. Oddly enough perhaps the most historic artifact of the park’s collection is sat in a quiet corner.
This is the prototype casing for the 4,500kg (10,000lb) bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. However the park also contains perhaps the secret to the greatest mystery of this barren landscape, what really crash landed at Roswell 59 years ago.
Crash landing in the Roswell triangle of New Mexico
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