Chapter 2 – NASA’s Best Kept Secret (and no, its not Area 51)
Much of the general public is familiar with the more notable NASA
facilities. KSC, JSC and JPL are for many people, household names.
Others like Ames less so and hardly anyone knows of Wallops Island or
Perhaps the least known is White Sands Test Facility. And before the
folks at Facility IV&V jump all over me, they didn’t exist “back in
Originally known as the Apollo Site and later renamed White Sands
Test Facility, WSTF lies in the high desert of New Mexico far from
It lays approximately 18 miles northeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico
and is at the end of a six mile road to nowhere called appropriately,
NASA Road. This is not to be confused with NASA Road One. If you are on
NASA Road One and you are looking for WSTF, you have a long hard trip
ahead. NASA Road is in a different state!
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect Apollo Site was obtained when
some poor rancher didn’t pay his taxes. I say this, because the land on
which WSTF sits, is not fit for man nor beast. Well maybe some
jackrabbits, snakes, and lizards, but that’s about all.
If you are looking for White Sands Test Facility it would be logical to look near or on White Sands Missile Range. Right?
The two are worlds apart. WSMR is military and WSTF is civilian. And
if the separation of these two cultures is not sufficient, the two are
separated by a mountain range! WSTF is on the west side of the San
Andreas Mountains, some eighteen miles from Las Cruces and WSMR is on
the east side, close to Alamogordo.
Back in the day, the north end of the San Andreas range was called
the Organ Mountains. They were called that because the mountains were
very rugged, and appeared to some like the standing pipes of an church
organ. US 70 connects Las Cruces with Alamogordo and goes over a
mountain pass. If heading east from Las Cruces, WSTF is north of US 70
and the other side of the mountain, WSMR is south of the highway.
Confused yet? Maybe this is why nobody knows where WSTF is.
As a small matter of interest, back in the day there was a small
beer joint on the highway just below the summit pass through the
Organs. Locals called that watering hole Balls.
From August 1963 to January 1966, a series of unmanned flight tests
were conducted at WSMR to demonstrate the adequacy of the Apollo launch
escape system and to verify the performance of the command module earth
landing system. The launch vehicle used for five of these tests was the
Little Joe II. Glynn Lunney (later the flight director during the most
critical hours of the Apollo 13 mission) took charge of the
“boilerplate” tests of the Apollo abort escape system at WSMR.
At the same time, on the other side of the mountain, engine firing
tests were being conducted on thrusters and LEM ascent and descent
engines that were deemed to be too dangerous because of the safety and
health aspects of hypergolic propellants, for testing at other NASA
Here is where we pick up on the story “Back in the Day…”
After college, I went back to the Los Angeles area and found
employment as an analytical chemist for a laboratory running analyses
on foods and foodstuffs. I spent long boring hours determining the
butter fat content of raw milk, fresh from a cow (and smelling like
it), fusil oil content in liquor (that’s the stuff that makes you go
blind from drinking moonshine) and looking for “gross filth” in canned
goods. Gross filth is the polite term used to describe fly eggs, bug
parts and other yucky things that show up from time to time in food. It
was a far cry from the excitement of those student days working “out on
the range” at White Sands Missile Range. Needless to say, I was not
enamored of a long term relationship with gross filth!
Realizing boredom was setting in, I decided to go back to New
Mexico, try for a full time job with PSL or perhaps WSMR. By that time,
WSTF was up and running. I applied for and managed to secure a position
at White Sands Test Facility in the early days of the Apollo program.
Actually, it was not so much a position as it was a grunt job; junior
bench chemist. But I gained a tremendous amount of experience and
knowledge that stood me in very good stead in the years to follow. And,
I made enough money to fulfill the first of my life-long ambitions. I
learned to fly!
From my days as a co-op student at New Mexico A&M studying
chemistry and working part time at White Sands, I was vaguely aware of
class of fuel and oxidizers that were hypergolic, in other words needed
no source of ignition. Mixing certain chemicals with others could cause
spontaneous combustion. Some hypergolic fuels and oxidizers were used
in the German rocket program during WWII. One such oxidizer was red
fuming nitric oxide. In Germany it was known as S-stoff. In our early
missile program a version of this oxidizer, IRFNA, red fuming nitric
acid with an inhibiter added, was used most notably in the Air Force
medium range ballistic missile, Thor.
Perhaps the most important rocket propellants ever developed were
the Nitrogen Tetroxide (NTO) oxidizer and hydrazine family of fuels,
Monomethyl Hydrazine (MMH), Dimethyl Hydrazine (DMH) and Aerozine-50, a
mixture of the two.
Early long range missile development centered around petroleum based
fuels and cryogenic oxidizers. Examples of these were kerosene or
alcohol and liquid oxygen. The problem is that cryogenics, gases cooled
to super cold temperatures at which they become liquid, are not readily
storable. They can be contained in dewar flasks, which are similar to
the familiar thermos bottle, but much, much more sophisticated (and
expensive). Cryogenic propellant tanks for missiles must be
continuously “topped off” to maintain flight readiness. This is not
practical when designing an ICBM (from which our first manned space
flight system, the Mercury-Atlas was developed).
Consequently, an ICBM had to be “tanked” before launch. This was not
acceptable when faced with the possibility of our enemies adopting a
“first strike” scenario. We needed a rapid reaction system, one where
our missiles could be fueled with storable fuels and oxidizers, and
which could generate the same specific impulse levels, read thrust, as
cryogenic oxidizers used in our first generation ICBMs. The answer came
with the Titan II. Titan used storable propellants, Aerozine-50 and
The Titan II was the basis for our second generation manned spacecraft project, Gemini.
Designers of the Apollo system settled on cryogenics for most of the
rocket engines but dictated hypergolics for the thrusters and the
ascent and descent engines of the Lunar Excursion Module and the
Service Module engine. The thinking being that the only the Command
Module, Service Module, LEM engines and various thrusters needed
storable propellants. All other stages of the Saturn V would be
discarded in or on the ascent to earth orbit.
The only downside of using the hypergolics is that they are highly toxic!
Hydrazines rot your liver and smell like dead fish, set out in the
sun for a couple of days. A favorite practical joke on new comers was
to shove a sanitary napkin, stained with ketchup and a small drop of
A-50, shoved far back in your desk drawer. This was my baptism in my
unit at WSTF. Thanks guys!
NTO exists as a gas/liquid phase in equilibrium at room temperature.
The red brown gas boiling off is essentially nitric acid anhydride,
needing only water to form nitric acid. High school chemistry students
soon learn that nitric acid burns like hell. Breathing in Nitrogen
Tetroxide fumes react with the moisture in the lungs forming nitric
acid and thus dissolves your lungs from the inside out. Bummer!
NTO leakage on the engine test stands at WSTF was known as a “BFRC.”
One might hear over the loud speakers, “We have a BFRC on 3!” A new
secretary asked her boss, “What does BFRC mean?” Like a pluperfect
idiot he told her. “BFRC means Big F*cking Red Cloud.” Shortly
thereafter a directive came down from the head-shed that from that time
forward, BFRC’s would be referred to as “Propellant Excursions.” I
really believe to this day that “BFRC” better described the urgency of
At WSTF I became very proficient in the handling of, and the
analyzing of the chemical properties of the hypergolics. One might say
I enjoyed sticking my head in the mouth of the lion.
While at WSTF a call came down from NASA HQ for candidates to form a
hypergolic analysis unit at the Merritt Island Launch Area, MILA. The
winner would get an all-expenses paid vacation in a mosquito infested
My boss won the lottery. He made the mistake of adding a caveat, he
would accept so long as he could take his best “technician.” The powers
that be informed him that they had not considered a sidekick as part of
the deal, but that personage should submit a resume for consideration.
Tonto got the job!
I’ll never forget the phone call I received the following Thursday morning.
It went something like this.
Him: “Can you be down at the Cape on Monday morning?”
Me: “I suppose, but don’tcha think we ought to discuss a few things first?”
Me: “For a visit, er, interview? Do I need to bring a toothbrush maybe wear a bra or something?”
Him: “Forget the small stuff, can you be at work here Monday?”
Me: “Ummmm, do we need to talk about salary maybe? And, Oh yeah, I
got a house here, and how much it’s gonna cost me to move, and Oh Hell,
Him: “Don’t sweat the small things. Double your current salary,
we’ll buy your house and front your moving expenses and advance the
down payment for a house on the island. That good enough for ya? I need
an answer NOW!”
Me: (Gulp) “I suppose.”
Me: “er, yes.”
Talk about jumping off the deep end, but then I always did say I wanted to see the world!
Next stop, Merritt Island where the big kids play…