A Visit to Spot V2 Launch Complex 33 at White Sands
Nike Hercules missile at the San Augustin Pass overlook on Highway 70 east of Las Cruces.
The guy was about to point a loaded M16 at me. I’d pushed the envelope with US military checkpoints before – at places like the Tonopah Test range and Area 51 – but this was the worst result and I wasn’t even trying.
“Leave now!” he said, gesturing me back to the car with his rifle. I left. But I wasn’t going to be defeated that easily. So I slunk back to the public road and looked for another way to see deep into the White Sands Missile Range and find the place where the US space program began.
If you’re into the history of spaceflight then Operation Paperclip probably needs no introduction, but for everyone else...
The first large liquid fuelled rocket was developed by one Werner Von Braun and his team from Peenemunde in Germany before and during WWII. That rocket was the A4, which became the V2, the second of Hitler’s vengeance weapons and a forerunner of the ICBMs that have menaced us all ever since.
(I have some personal history with the V weapons, because my mother was nearly killed by a V1 ‘Doodlebug’ whilst cycling past Hawkinge Aerodrome during the war. She’d stopped to gawk at the puttering missile and only survived ‘cos a passing soldier grabbed her and pulled her into a ditch - no hardship, she was about 19 and quite good looking at the time.)
After the war, some of the remaining V2s and the rocket engineers that built them went to the US and some to the USSR.
In the US, more than 100 engineers - including Werner von Braun himself - were put to work in ‘temporary military custody’ on a secret project building high-altitude research rockets from missiles. The project was named ‘Paperclip’ because the folders of engineers the US wanted were marked with one.
Whilst the project operated from the Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, the captured V2s themselves went for testing in the desert, via the railyards at Las Cruces in New Mexico, at what was the White Sands Proving Ground (now Missile Range, the WSMR).
Some 67 V2s were launched from Launch Complex 33 at White Sands between 1946 and 1950. One of the launches, in October 1946, famously took the first ever photo of the world from space (65 miles up).
Some of the infrastructure that Paperclip built at the WSMR – principally the launch gantry and the distinctive army block house, with its 27-foot-thick pyramidal roof – still exist and are protected as a national historic site. This short article describes how to see them for yourself, without any special clearance.
Note: There’s no getting away from the problematic backstory of Operation Paperclip and V2 testing. Some of the engineers were former Nazis. The V2 rocket made spaceflight a thing, but it was originally designed to kill people and it did, lots of them – over 2700 civilians in London alone and many more in the German concentration camp where they were built.
The V2 blockhouse in action.
The WSMR where captured V2s were tested sprawls across the floor of New Mexico’s vast Tularosa Basin. The old V2 army blockhouse is in the (relatively small) portion to the south of Highway 70 from Las Cruces to Alamogordo and it’s along Highway 70 that you’ll travel to get there.
Las Cruces is far better connected as it’s at the junction of interstates I-10 and I-25, but as a tourist you’re perhaps more likely to come from the direction of Alamogordo in the east since that’s where scenic White Sands NM lies just a few miles to the east.
The WSMR headquarters is accessed by a side turning off Highway 70 at the foot of the pass from Las Cruces. The overlook I recommend below is near the top of that pass and the Organ Mountains reachable from another side-turn to the south between the two.
What to see
San Augustin Pass Overlook
Driving east out of Las Cruces, the Highway climbs out of town up to the San Augustin pass between barren mountains. Just over the top on the south side of the Highway is a long overlook with a roofed picnic area and a Nike missile (see above)! The small town of White Sands and the nearest parts of the missile range spread out below this overlook.
From here you can sit comfortably on a bench and scan the nearest parts of the missile range, with its many small discrete facilities scattered out over the desert plain. To see the Launch Site 33 army blockhouse with its distinctive pyramidal roof does require a bit of searching, but you should be able to find it with any decent bino’s (I used my stabilised 12x36 Canons), though a scope would be better.
Near the bunker is the white-and-red painted launch gantry, supposedly with a modified V2 in place, but you can’t see that level of detail (with bino’s at least).
Binocular view of the Operation Paperclip bunkhouse from the San Augustin Pass Overlook.
Organ Mountains NM
These are the pointy peaks you see to the east above Las Cruces. From the east side they don’t look quite as spectacular, but they are easily accessed by a minor road halfway down from the pass. That road winds out along the edge of the WSMR with some great views - even closer than the overlook back at the pass.
Eventually the road ends up at a campsite at this remote and little-known national monument. There are more viewpoints and hiking trails which also offer good views of the WSMR.
View from a trail on the edge of the Organ Mountains NM, showing the location of the blockhouse beyond the closed missile range town in the foreground.
White Sands National Monument
To get more of an idea what the WSMR is like at ground level, you can hike out along the Alkali Flats trail at the White Sands National Monument a few miles further east off Highway 70.
The trail leads out to the western boundary of the NM where there are warning signs and views of a WSMR facility (not the Paperclip one) in the distance to give a strong flavour of this remote and secretive place.
A few miles further east, you can see the white sands up close at the National Monument.
The Alkali Flat trail at the National Monument leads to the very edge of the White Sands Missile Range.
Things to do
If you’re a US national, you can visit the missile museum at the WMSR headquarters. I believe the museum has a display on Paperclip and maybe a viewing opportunity, it also appears to have a sectioned V2. This is what I’d been planning before the guard with the M16 curtailed my visit.
To get to the museum, just take the turn off south from Highway 70 marked ‘WSMR Headquarters’ along Highway 213.
If you’re interested in the history of spaceflight, it’s well worth taking a detour to try to see the famous V2 launch area and blockhouse.
Visit the museum if you’re allowed. You may even be able to book a visit to the complex itself if you’re a US citizen.
Alternatively, just take a pair of binoculars (or a scope) to the San Augustin Pass overlook, or hiking with you on an Organ Mountains trail. Finding the place where the Space Race began was a real thrill for me, even if just through my bino’s!