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NEWS | Sept. 26, 2023

Part 3 of 3: In Land of Enchantment, White Sands Team Boosts Local Ties to Keep Missiles, Rockets Flying

By Thomas McMahon Naval Surface Warfare Center Port Hueneme


Third in a three-part series

White Sands Detachment’s roots run deep in southern New Mexico, but the detachment has begun planting seeds in the surrounding communities to keep its fleet support mission thriving in the high desert.

Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD)’s White Sands team abounds with seasoned scientists, engineers and other personnel who are natives of the region — a corner of the Land of Enchantment state that is rich in natural beauty and compelling history. As those veteran teammates are nearing the end of their careers, the detachment is ramping up efforts to build its future workforce by partnering with local schools and promoting its sounding rocket launches to the public.

The detachment is also nurturing another key connection with the community — its partnerships with the ranchers whose land surrounds White Sands Missile Range, and whose cooperation is critical for far-reaching missile tests.

“Our relationships with the local community are extremely important — they are key to our success,” said Abie Parra, White Sands Detachment site director.

White Sands leaders point to their personnel’s shared passion for bolstering the nation’s firepower as they test and evaluate weapons for the Navy and other branches of the Department of Defense.

“We’re supporting the fleet and really making a difference in the security of the country,” said Lynn Erwin, surface weapons division manager.

Along with their vital work, White Sands leaders and staff also speak fondly of the region’s natural appeal — from the jagged mountain ranges to the wide open spaces to the shining waves of white sand.

“If you expect to come to White Sands Missile Range and see nothing but desolation, you are in for a surprise,” said Cmdr. Adrian Laney, officer in charge of White Sands Detachment.

While the region offers appealing features for folks from other parts of the country — for example, the lower cost of living compared to the coasts — the detachment relies on the local population as the primary source for its workforce. That means spreading the word about careers with the Navy at White Sands Missile Range.

“We’re looking for someone who’s tied to the local area — who wants to live here and do exciting technical work for a living,” Parra said. “A lot of people don’t realize that there is a Navy detachment here at White Sands.”

Promoting that technical career path for local students is a top priority for White Sands Detachment as it builds its next generation of employees. To that end, the detachment’s work with sounding rockets is a key area of outreach to the community — including future rocket scientists.

Community outreach via rockets
Recruiting rocket scientists and engineers from the surrounding areas has been challenging for White Sands Detachment, and finding long-term employees from outside of the region has been even more challenging. So, the detachment has begun using rockets to get local students and the surrounding community excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related fields.

While much of White Sands Detachment’s work is classified, the sounding rocket missions it launches for NASA are unclassified because the rockets carry scientific instruments to take measurements during suborbital flights.

The detachment has started livestreaming sounding rocket launches to the public via NASA TV after obtaining clearance from White Sands Missile Range security officials. The team installed two cameras on a Black Brant IX rocket that flew on May 3, and it became the detachment’s first livestreamed launch.

“You could see the rocket leaving earth and getting into space,” said Ray Watson, program manager of the detachment’s Launch Complex 36, where the sounding rockets take flight.

To enhance the online viewing experience for the public, White Sands Detachment plans to acquire new video cameras that can capture higher-resolution footage, Watson said.

In another outreach effort, the detachment recently brought in local Girl Scouts and home-school students to tour the Launch Complex 36 blockhouse and then watch the sounding rocket blast off at another building on the range.

White Sands Detachment is also building connections with area schools to promote careers in STEM.

For example, a middle school in nearby Las Cruces, New Mexico, offers a student rocket program, and Parra has talked to school officials about how White Sands Detachment personnel could support the program.

“We could send a couple of engineers to give the students a lesson on the basics of rocketry, and have them come to White Sands to watch a launch or have them stream it on NASA TV,” Parra said.

White Sands Detachment is also creating a higher education pipeline. The detachment partnered with New Mexico State University in Las Cruces to support the creation of an aerospace engineering program.

Students are now completing the aerospace program at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. That includes White Sands Detachment’s Maria Cunningham, a branch manager and system safety engineer, who graduated with a master’s degree in May. At the undergraduate level, some students who interned at the detachment are now becoming employees — evidence that the outreach efforts are working.

“If we can light that spark early, we will be considerably more successful in having a good body of graduating students to recruit from,” Parra said.

Parra’s background is an example of the educational and career paths that the detachment is advocating in the local population. He grew up in Silver City, New Mexico, an agricultural and mining community about 150 miles west of White Sands Missile Range.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering technology at New Mexico State University in 2005, Parra began working at White Sands Detachment’s Desert Ship facility through the university’s Physical Science Laboratory on contract with the Navy. Three years later, he transitioned to civil service, and he rose through the ranks in various engineering and management positions before becoming site director in 2019.

“If you survey our workforce right now, largely what you’d see is that the veterans who have been here eight to nine years or more are all folks who grew up in the area,” he said.

Growing fascination
One of the local veterans is John Winstead, a technical adviser who has worked at White Sands for more than 40 years. Winstead grew up in El Paso, Texas, which is just across the state border south of the range. His interest in working at White Sands stemmed largely from what he witnessed in his youth.

“When I was a kid, you could get on a bicycle and go out into the desert, hide in the bushes and watch them fire missiles,” Winstead said. “That looks interesting to a kid.”

Years later, after hearing that there was a hiring spree at White Sands Missile Range, Winstead and one of his brothers went to see for themselves, and both went home with jobs the same day.

Winstead’s older brother went to work on the instrumentation crew for range operations, and eventually rose to the role of chief of telemetry before retiring about five years ago. Winstead’s twin brother also launched a career in the area’s defense industry.

Winstead himself landed a civilian job with the “Desert Navy” — as the sign in front of White Sands Detachment’s headquarters says. He started working in field support in the engineering department in 1980. Over the decades, he worked his way up and eventually took on the role of site director before handing over the reins to Parra a few years ago.

At that point, Winstead had become eligible to retire, but he decided to stay on a few more years to impart his insights to the next generation. With other longtime employees also in the twilight of their careers, retaining institutional knowledge is one of the detachment’s most pressing priorities, according to Parra.

“We need to transfer that knowledge base to the younger generations of employees,” he said.

While the White Sands Detachment workforce largely draws from the local population, those who come from other parts of the country say they have found appealing features in the area. That includes the officer in charge.

Land of Enchantment
Laney and his family moved to the area in May 2022, when he took the helm at White Sands Detachment. They came to southern New Mexico from Virginia, where Laney had served as a product manager at the Missile Defense Agency.

A native of eastern Texas, Laney’s naval career has also taken him to Washington state, Australia and California. For his first assignment as an engineering duty officer, he worked on combat system trials as a project officer for NSWC PHD in Port Hueneme.

After living in New Mexico for the past year, Laney said he understands why the state is known as the Land of Enchantment.

For example, the Organ Mountains — whose soaring spires resemble the pipes of a cathedral organ — tower about 4,000 feet above the detachment’s headquarters. Laney described the mountains as “a breathtaking range with enough character to keep you staring for hours.”

The area is also awash in eye-catching wildlife.

“The desert transforms itself in the summer months with an explosion of green on the mesquite, ocotillo and other flora,” Laney said. “You would not believe the life that is supported by the high desert ecosystem, from collared lizards to the elusive mountain lion to the formidable oryx.”

The African oryx is a nonnative antelope that has made its home on the missile range — in a new twist on the old folk song.

The brown-bodied beast with black-and-white head and legs can weigh upwards of 500 pounds and has horns nearly 3 feet long. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish released 95 oryx in White Sands Missile Range and surrounding areas as big-game targets for hunters.

With few natural predators and an abundance of food — from desert grasses to yucca to mesquite bean pods — the oryx thrived and multiplied. Today, they number in the thousands on White Sands Missile Range, according to the National Park Service. That can make them a hazard for White Sands Detachment personnel driving through the range.

“They’re beautiful creatures, but we have to watch out for them,” said Charlie Dirks, a test officer in the advanced research programs branch. “If they jump in front of your vehicle, they can do some damage — like hitting a deer or a horse.”

Oryx aren’t the only hazards on the range. Detachment personnel warn visitors about an assortment of risks to watch out for. Those include both natural and manmade dangers such as rattlesnakes, moving tanks and unexploded ordnance — some of which don’t look like traditional explosives and could be as small as a golf ball.

“If you see something on the ground that looks odd, don’t pick it up,” Parra told a group of NSWC PHD leaders visiting from Port Hueneme in May. “It might look like a golf ball, but it’s not a golf ball.”

Hazards aside, White Sands Missile Range offers a vibrant palette of sights from the mountaintops to the desert floor. At the southern end of the range, where the detachment’s headquarters and key facilities like Desert Ship are located, visitors may be surprised by the color of the sand. In that area of the desert, it’s an earthy red.

But drive about 30 miles north of the main post, and you can’t miss the sea of white sand that inspired the missile range’s name.

Snow-white wonder
White Sands isn’t just a missile range — it’s also a national park that preserves an iconic natural wonder.

Near the center of the range lies a gleaming expanse of dunes and fields so white they could pass for snow. Waves of gypsum sand cover 275 square miles, or about 9% of the range’s 3,200 square miles.

Gypsum is a soft sulfate mineral that serves as a key ingredient in many common products, from chalk to toothpaste to drywall.

Mountains surrounding White Sands are composed of countless layers of gypsum, and rainfall and snowmelt dissolve the crystals and wash them down to the desert basin. There, the water eventually evaporates and leaves behind the gypsum crystals, which the wind has blown into miles of glistening mounds.

“The dunes are brilliant,” Winstead said. “They are truly white sands.”

White Sands National Park encompasses more than half of the gypsum dunefield. The public can access the park via a highway that traverses White Sands Missile Range — except when the route closes for missile tests. Some visitors slide down the white slopes in sleds, enjoying a winter pastime in the middle of the desert.

The military outfits that populate White Sands Missile Range can land aircraft on the gypsum flats outside of the national park. An unimproved runway on the flats was built to accommodate the space shuttle Columbia, which landed at White Sands in 1982.

The gypsum dunefield is so large and bright that it’s easy to spot from space in footage from the sounding rockets that White Sands Detachment launches.

Beyond the waves of white sand, on the northern end of the range lies a landmark with an explosive history: Trinity Site.

Earth-shattering explosion
One of the first tests at White Sands Missile Range changed the world.

Just before dawn on July 16, 1945 — one week after the range debuted as White Sands Proving Ground — the U.S. Army dropped a bulbous, 10-foot-long bomb dubbed Gadget from a 100-foot-tall steel tower near the northern end of the range.

The bomb, whose plutonium core had been assembled three days earlier at a vacated ranch house nearby, was the world’s first nuclear weapon — the inaugural product of the top secret Manhattan Project that developed the earth-shattering capability in part at Los Alamos, New Mexico, about 200 miles north of the range.

The test was titled Project Trinity, which led to the place’s reference as Trinity Site.

As the bomb plummeted toward the bottom of the tower — designated Ground Zero — Manhattan Project scientists, Army officers and other observers watched through welding goggles at shelters as close as 10,000 yards away, or 5.7 miles.

The bomb exploded with a force of 19 kilotons — equivalent to 19,000 tons of TNT — erupting in a monstrous fireball. The blast illuminated the area and adjacent mountains with an intense, multicolored light. Observers heard a roar and felt a shock wave and a rush of heat.

What became the iconic image of the atomic bomb — the mushroom cloud — rose more than 7 miles into the sky in a matter of minutes. The blast pressed a crater several feet deep into the desert floor and turned the sand into a glassy, green, mildly radioactive substance that came to be known as trinitite.

Three weeks later — on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945 — the U.S. Army Air Forces dropped the second and third atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The stunning destruction helped usher in the end of World War II as Japan surrendered the following week, on Aug. 15.

At White Sands Missile Range, Trinity Site is now a national historic landmark. At Ground Zero stands a 12-foot-tall lava rock obelisk with a metal plaque that identifies the spot as “where the world’s first nuclear device was exploded on July 16, 1945.”

White Sands Missile Range hosts open houses for the public at Trinity Site two days per year, in April and October. Visitors can see a portion of the original crater, remains of the steel tower, pieces of trinitite and the ranch house where the bomb was assembled.

Radiation at Trinity Site is minimal, according to White Sands Missile Range’s brochure for the site. Spending an hour at Ground Zero exposes the body to between 1/2 and 1 millirem, a measure of radiation. By comparison, a coast-to-coast flight on a commercial jet subjects a passenger to 2 millirem.

In addition to the open house days for the public, Trinity Site serves as a tour stop during White Sands Missile Range’s annual Rancher’s Day, which NSWC PHD’s White Sands Detachment participates in with other military branches.

Relationships with local ranchers are essential for enabling White Sands Detachment to fire missiles into the farthest reaches of the range.

Rancher relations, western lifestyle
The normal bounds of White Sands Missile Range are about 100 miles from north to south and 40 miles from east to west.

When weapon tests require more space, the range can expand with call-up areas — stretches of land to the west and north. The call-up areas rely on land-use agreements with the state of New Mexico and the ranchers whose property borders the range.

“Those land-use agreements allow us to manage hazard patterns for highly dynamic testing, allowing unintended impacts on private and public land not owned by the Department of Defense,” Parra said.

During those tests, ranchers move their livestock and evacuate their areas. The government compensates them for the burden and puts them up in hotels. Even so, building goodwill with the ranchers goes beyond reimbursing them for their trouble.

To that end, the Rancher’s Day events help bolster ties with the local landowners. The White Sands military branches treat the ranchers to lunch, show them test equipment and lead them on tours of Trinity Site and other points of interest.

The local ranching community ties in with what Parra calls the “western lifestyle” that endures in the region. Wearing a silver belt buckle emblazoned with the word “RODEO” during the recent visit with NSWC PHD leaders, Parra talked about a couple of his hobbies — team roping and training horses.

He grew up competing in team roping — in which one horse-mounted rider lassos a steer’s head, while the second rider lassos the steer’s back legs. Parra still goes to rodeos on weekends, but mostly to watch his daughter compete in barrel racing — in which riders gallop around three barrels in a clover-like pattern.

The area around White Sands Missile Range holds a storied Wild West past — notorious outlaw Billy the Kid once roamed the region until lawman Pat Garrett gunned him down in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Despite those rugged fringes, Laney said he has found the locals warm and welcoming during his first year at White Sands.

“The people of New Mexico are just plain friendly,” Laney said. “They have nothing to prove; they are generous and they care about this country.”

Previous parts in this series:

Part 1:

Part 2: