What was once deemed to be the premiere testing facility for liquid rocket motors was quickly abandoned within a decade due to a change in warfare tactics back in the 1950s but still sits atop White Sands Missile Range’s mountainside. The 500K Static Test Stand is still visible when driving out of the range heading toward the El Paso Gate and is quite a site to see up close. The stand was unique in its time, some claim it was the first site to test a V-2 rocket.
“It was a very necessary tool for the DoD and the whole world. It was overcome by technology and the warfare scenario changed,” said Carlos Bustamante, a retired WSMR structural engineer who worked at the site.
In his book “Pocketful of Rockets,” author Jim Eckles provides unique information on 500K. The reasoning behind the name was due to the facility’s capability to tie down rocket motors with lift-off capabilities up to 500,000 pounds of thrust and have the framework and engines remain intact. The site served as the world’s largest static test site.
“The facility was mounted against the very steep mountainside to make a vertical environment instead of a horizontal one – close to the actual orientation for most missiles. This had the great advantage of using gravity to bring propellants down to the test stand and water down from a 100,000 gallon storage tank,” Eckles said in his book.
Bustamante worked at WSMR during the time the 500K was still in use. His first encounter with 500K was in 1952 when he started working at the facility. He said at that time they were modifying the stands from an incline to vertical. The site was built to test rockets like the V-2 rocket and liquid rocket engines. The reason it was on an incline was to allow the exhaust plumes to come out at an incline. During his time there Bustamante worked to help redesign the site and built a bridge that rolls across the opening. He said they were also working to retrofit the stands to test the Redstone Arsenal’s liquid rockets.
According to Eckles the site was used from 1950 to 1951 for V-2 power plant tests, from 1953 to 1655 for Redstone test firings, and in 1956 the site was used for Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules test missions. The site was also used by the Air Force from 1956 through 1958 where the Atlas, an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, and Jupiter rockets were tested, according to Bustamante. By the end of the Air Force testing, Bustamante said the motor stands and the static stands were no longer useful because of the development of modern rocket engines.
“It lost its usefulness in the early 60s. From then on they were all solid rockets,” Bustamante said.
“It is a historical relic now. The designers saw a bright future for the facility, a future filled with customers wanting to test larger and larger rockets,” Eckles said in his book.
After a short lived testing life, the facility was essentially gutted and used for whatever other testers needed at the time in order to avoid further costs, according to Bustamante. He said they started using the maintenance room against the mountain through the static structure as a machine shop.
“We started trying to use the value of the structure. It was stripped here and picked there, just like buzzards picking at a carcass,” Bustamante said.
Bustamante said he recalls a time he recycled a piece of equipment for a new mission. The site housed a tank that held a 55,000 alcohol gallon tank. Bustamante said he remembered the tank when a range tester requested a tank full of water for their test site.
“I thought it would be a shame not to use the alcohol storage tank,” Bustamante said.
Bustamante and his team reinforced the tank with aluminum to make up for the difference in gravity from alcohol to water. He and his team tested the tank with water by WSMR’s liquid fuel storage area. The repurposed tank was a success. Bustamante then told his team to empty the tank to place it in the test site. He said the team had failed to release the pressure from the top of the tank and just released the water. The volume of water coming out of the tank was too much for the tank to handle without a release and gravity brought the entire tank down.
“When we came back the tank was flatter than a pancake,” Bustamante said.
Bustamante asked his team to bury the tank to avoid any further embarrassment.
He attributes the loss of interest in liquid rockets to the development of the Pershing missile in 1957. The Pershing was meant to bypass major flaws found in liquid rockets like its large cumbersome size and the special fuel and fuel handling it required. According to the coldwar.org website, the Pershing was smaller in size and provided greater range and greater reliability.
Bustamante holds 500K in a special place in his heart and sees the site as a very important instrument during that time of war. The building was built in a hurry to be able to catch up to German Forces and was quickly abandoned in the same speed.
“(It was) the first site built in the free world to be able to sustain and hold a missile rocket engine in place in 1946. There’s not many others that I know of,” Bustamante said. “It was very important but short-lived.”