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By Thomas McMahon
Naval Surface Warfare Center Port Hueneme
Second in a three-part series
When White Sands personnel fire sounding rockets high above the desert, they are propelling scientific research in space while also supporting the Navy fleet at sea.
The Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD) detachment in southern New Mexico carries on a long legacy of launching sounding rockets for NASA and academic researchers. Along the way, the decades-old program established a unique expertise that has boosted naval firepower by enabling the White Sands team to develop ballistic targets and hypersonic delivery systems to test new weapons — all with a focus on affordability.
“The NASA sounding rockets dovetailed very well into building threat-representative ballistic missile targets,” said Cmdr. Adrian Laney, officer in charge of White Sands Detachment.
Building and blasting off sounding rockets is the longest-running mission for White Sands Detachment. The program grew out of the Navy’s work with V-2 rockets that the U.S. captured from Germany at the end of World War II and brought to White Sands Missile Range.
“That’s where our flight heritage and our partnership with NASA come from,” said Abie Parra, White Sands Detachment site director and W Department manager. “Both of our mission statements are similar: fly the best possible vehicles that we can, as cheaply as we possibly can, and put as many experiments up there as possible.”
Today, White Sands Detachment’s suborbital vehicles division spearheads the sounding rockets and their offshoots — targets that mimic real-world threats.
The suborbital vehicles division comprises about 25 employees and can surge to around 200, depending on mission needs.
The team has high levels of technical expertise. For example, about a dozen team members have doctorates in rocket science.
White Sands Detachment’s suborbital vehicles program draws its lineage from the V-2 rocket experiments that brought the Navy to White Sands in 1946. Early launches carried an assortment of terrestrial life aloft — including corn seeds, fruit flies and monkeys — to study the effects of exposure to cosmic radiation and riding aboard a rocket. The primate space flights helped pave the way for human astronauts.
The pairing of rocket technology and scientific research continued as NASA took charge of the sounding rockets program at White Sands in the 1960s, with the Navy detachment facilitating the launches. Eventually, White Sands Detachment’s work in the space arena sparked a new effort to bolster naval readiness.
“We were launching these rockets for NASA, and we realized we could turn them into targets for the fleet,” said Joel Giblin, suborbital vehicles division manager.
John Winstead, a longtime engineer, former site director and now technical adviser at White Sands Detachment, led a team that developed a solid-fuel rocket target called the Aegis Readiness Assessment Vehicle, or ARAV. The target emulates ballistic missiles, which helps prepare the fleet to defend against those threats.
ARAVs have tested the capabilities of multiple military combat systems, including the Navy’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and the Patriot surface-to-air missile system. In the process, the program has saved the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars, because the ARAVs use surplus military motors and are about 85% cheaper than the ballistic missile targets they replaced, according to the Department of Defense (DOD).
The success and costs savings of the ARAV program prompted a high honor from the DOD. In 2010, the ARAV team won the prestigious David Packard Excellence in Acquisition Award.
White Sands Detachment builds multiple ARAV variants, including ARAV-A and ARAV-B, for the Navy fleet and other Department of Defense customers, such as the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory. Customers also include defense contractors that manufacture weapons for the military.
“These companies are building sophisticated weapon systems, and they need a way to test them in real life,” Giblin said.
Winstead and other White Sands personnel developed another variant, the ARAV-C, in response to an urgent need for targets that would emulate emerging threats. The team designed and deployed the ARAV-C in 18 months — the fastest such development in MDA history — and at a cost of $23 million less than the only other proposed alternative, according to the DOD.
The ARAV variants have different capabilities — how far they can fly, for example, or what types of onboard technology they’re equipped with — depending on what the customer requires.
“Every target is unique,” Giblin said. “They can be relatively simple to relatively complex.”
The suborbital vehicles team flies ARAVs in test events like Combat System Ship Qualification Trials and in large-scale military exercises around the globe. Those include Formidable Shield at the Hebrides Range in Scotland and Pacific Dragon at Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands in Kauai, both held every two years with allied navies.
The ARAVs, like the sounding rockets they stemmed from, are generally unguided projectiles that fly in a ballistic trajectory — similar to the arc of a football thrown high over a field. Now White Sands Detachment is working on partially guided and — eventually — fully guided targets.
The suborbital vehicles team’s latest creation is the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Target (IAMD-T), a semiguided target designed to trigger and engage terminal ship defense combat systems, such as Standard Missile (SM)-2 and SM-6.
White Sands Detachment has launched the IAMD-T in two development test flights to date — one during Pacific Dragon 2022 in August, and another during Formidable Shield 2023 in May. The second test demonstrated the target vehicle’s guidance capability with a controlled portion of flight during the final leg of its descent.
A third IAMD-T test is in the works for the next Pacific Dragon in August 2024. During that exercise, the target vehicle will carry a qualified flight termination system — a device that enables range control to disable the vehicle remotely — and plans call for demonstrating the vehicle’s full guidance capability during all phases of flight, rather than just the final descent.
The suborbital vehicles division has also leveraged its sounding rocket expertise to develop a hypersonic test bed, which launches a payload into a hypersonic velocity to evaluate and qualify its components in flight. Those payloads could be either hypersonic targets or hypersonic weapons.
“We’re a delivery system for new hypersonic systems coming online,” Giblin said.
White Sands Detachment’s work in this rarified realm has become increasingly vital as adversaries have advanced their own hypersonic capabilities.
As in the Navy’s early days at White Sands, the detachment’s suborbital launches continue to facilitate high-flying research.
“Generally every vehicle we fly has a piggyback experiment on board — even the targets,” Parra said.
Scientific research remains the focus of the sounding rockets program at White Sands Missile Range, which relies on the deep knowledge and experience of the suborbital vehicles team, and a facility known as Launch Complex 36.
Sounding rocket regime
Surrounded by sand and mesquite on the southern end of the range, Launch Complex 36 houses the White Sands Detachment personnel who build and blast off sounding rockets for NASA and academic researchers.
Sounding rockets carry scientific instruments to take measurements during suborbital flights, breaking out of the atmosphere and soaring through space for about six minutes before descending back to Earth.
Teams from universities and government entities across the country conduct the research; NASA sponsors the efforts — paying for the rocket motors, for instance, and the labor to integrate the payloads — and White Sands personnel put it all together and make it fly.
“We are the integrators,” Laney said. “Our government civilians are the ones putting their hands on the rockets, doing rocket science and launching them into space.”
White Sands Detachment launches around 10 to 12 sounding rockets per year from its blockhouse at Launch Complex 36, where large blue letters spell out “U.S. Navy” above the entrance.
Inside the blockhouse, a small group of employees sit at a long, light-blue console busy with computers, monitors, communications equipment, switches and lights. There, they interface with the launcher about 600 feet away, towering over the desert terrain.
White Sands’ sounding rockets are typically two-stage vehicles, with two motors propelling a payload that contains the scientific instruments, topped by a nosecone.
To take flight, a Terrier Mark 70 first-stage motor blasts off and burns for about six seconds before falling away, and then a Black Brant second-stage motor pushes the rocket toward space — the border of which is 62 miles above Earth. After the second stage falls away, the rest of the rocket continues soaring through space up to about 200 miles from Earth.
After a sounding rocket reenters the atmosphere, it deploys a parachute and descends to the desert floor around the middle of the 100-mile-long White Sands Missile Range. The team can closely calculate where to recover a rocket.
“After going 200 miles up, it comes down within about 2 miles from where we expect it,” said Ray Watson, Launch Complex 36 program manager.
In a recent mission, the detachment launched a Black Brant IX rocket that flew under the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite on May 3. The goal was to collect data for researchers to calibrate instruments aboard the Solar Dynamics Observatory and other satellites that measure extreme ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
“They got really good data out of it,” Watson said. “It was a totally successful mission.”
The May 3 sounding rocket flight upheld White Sands Detachment’s high success rate for suborbital vehicle launches. According to Parra, over the past 20 years, the team has successfully executed 122 of 124 launches, or 98%.
Along with its emphasis on safety and reliability, the detachment has managed to minimize costs. Parra said that the average price of the detachment’s suborbital vehicles is about $8 million per flight — less than a quarter of the price of a comparable commercial version, which averages around $35 million.
“The vehicles we build are extremely cost effective,” Parra said. “We don’t like to increase the price point of our vehicles if we’re not reducing risk in the process.”
One way the White Sands team keeps costs down is by repurposing decommissioned hardware. For example, the detachment has been collaborating with NSWC Indian Head Division to develop aerial targets by salvaging old Terrier Mark 12 booster rocket motors and converting them into Terrier Mark 70 motors for sounding rockets and other suborbital vehicles.
White Sands Detachment has gradually built up a supply of roughly 5,000 decommissioned rocket motors.
“We’re experts in maximizing resources,” Parra said. “That’s a large reason why our vehicles are much less costly to build.”
In addition to assembling and launching the suborbital vehicles, White Sands Detachment builds the launch rails — the ladder-like structures that position rockets for liftoff and guide them into their trajectories.
The launch rails come in a range of capacities, such as 20K, 30K and 50K, referring to how many thousands of pounds they can accommodate. For most sounding rocket launches, the detachment uses a 50K rail, which can support rocket configurations with a maximum design load of 50,000 pounds.
Parra said that White Sands Detachment will soon take delivery of an older 100K launcher, which the team will refurbish. The detachment also certifies launchers for safety, and its expertise is in demand from agencies across the U.S. government and DOD as well as from allies overseas.
“We have launchers all over the world, in four or five countries at this point,” Parra said.
White Sands Detachment’s rocket launch capabilities led to an ongoing project in France. In early 2020, the detachment began helping the France Ministry of Defense establish its own sounding rocket program at a military site in Biscarrosse, a town on the Bay of Biscay in southwestern France.
So far, the partnership with France has produced three sounding rocket launches in Biscarrosse, most recently on June 26. For that third flight, an unguided three-stage motor propelled a complex separating payload with a French experimental assembly.
Later this year, White Sands Detachment will attempt one of its most ambitious sounding rocket events yet. The team at Launch Complex 36 is planning to launch three sounding rockets 30 minutes apart.
The three rockets will carry instruments into space to study a solar eclipse that will pass over New Mexico and other parts of the U.S. on Oct. 14. The lead investigator for that project is a professor from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
For the White Sands team, the solar eclipse mission will reach a new level of complexity in both the payload — including four devices that will eject in space to collect data — and the launch — which will use either two or three launch rails to fire off the three sounding rockets at half-hour intervals.
“We’ve never done three in such close succession,” Watson said. “We’re up for the challenge.”
The effort also ties in with a longer-term goal to have at least three launchers, and possibly as many as five, available for researchers aiming to put several payloads in space at the same time.
“That will provide a better array of support for customers who want to come in and see multiple targets launch,” Watson said.
Part 3 of this series focuses on White Sands Detachment’s efforts to engage local students and build its future workforce, while also exploring the career paths of its leaders. The final chapter also sheds light on the range’s intriguing features — from the brilliant white dunes of gypsum crystals to the explosive history of the Trinity Site.
Part 3: https://www.dvidshub.net/news/454000/part-3-3-land-enchantment-white-sands-team-boosts-local-ties-keep-missiles-rockets-flying
Part 1: https://www.dvidshub.net/news/453177/part-1-3-white-sands-detachment-broadens-reach-keep-pace-with-navys-weapons-testing-needs