• White Sands Missile Range was established in 1945, and was the site of the world’s first atomic bomb test.
  • The range has seen at least 42,000 missile and rocket launches over the past 75 years.
  • More recently, the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy have been testing railgun and laser weaponry at White Sands.

In May 2022, Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft made the first landing of an American capsule spacecraft at White Sands Missile Range. Located in New Mexico, White Sands is a huge proving ground where the U.S. military has tested everything from nuclear weapons to V-2 rockets. The site is actually the birthplace of America’s space program, and is home not just to a space capsule landing field, but the latest in weapons tech, from lasers to electromagnetic railguns.

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General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer examine the exact location of the Trinity atomic test, 1945.
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White Sands Missile Range was established in 1945 as White Sands Proving Ground, a sprawling, empty patch of New Mexico desert cordoned off by the government to support the war effort. White Sands includes the Trinity test site, the location of the first atomic bomb test, which occurred on the north end of the proving ground. The proving ground— later redesignated a missile range—encompasses 3,200 square miles. The location gets its name from the blindingly white gypsum sand dunes native to the base.

Within a year, after the fall of Nazi Germany, the U.S. Army used White Sands to test captured V-2 rockets. The rockets, which Adolf Hitler had hoped would batter England into submission, were used to jumpstart America’s rocket programs. The Army tested 67 of the rockets at the White Sands V-2 Launch Site, also known as Launch Complex 33. The testing resulted in rocket technology that not only helped the U.S. build rockets for nuclear weapons, but also space rockets.

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Space Shuttle Columbia landing at White Sands, 1982.

According to the White Sands Missile Range Museum, the range has seen approximately 42,000 rocket and missile launches since its creation. The range is still active, so that number is no doubt higher. One of the most recent missiles tested at White Sands is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile, a land-based missile system designed to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles. In 1982, the third Space Shuttle mission, STS-3, landed at the airstrip at White Sands.

Now, as the Pentagon is pushing to develop directed energy weapons, White Sands’ seemingly limitless expanse is proving of use at the dawn of yet another new class of weapons. The U.S. Navy moved its prototype electromagnetic railgun (EMRG) from a testing range in Virginia to White Sands in early 2019. The railgun is undertaking “shakedown” tests before a decision on further deployment—or development—is made.

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Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is testing 50-kilowatt lasers at White Sands mounted on Stryker infantry armored vehicles. The lasers are powerful enough to shoot down drones, and a 100-kilowatt version, the High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator, is being developed for placement on a truck. The 100-kilowatt version is envisioned as the starting point for a system that can eventually shoot down incoming missiles. The Air Force is funding Lockheed Martin to develop the ATHENA laser for air base defense against drone swarms, with tests conducted at White Sands in 2018.

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Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.