NASA White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) has been an important part of the space program since 1963. Originally WSTF was known as the Apollo site, because it was established to support the development of the Apollo Spacecraft propulsion and power systems. The first rocket engine was tested at WSTF on Sept. 22, 1964. In 1967, the laboratories were expanded to enable extensive testing of the materials and components related to emerging spacecraft propulsion and power technology and crew safety, especially in the wake of the tragic flash fire during Apollo 1 launch pad test that took the lives of three astronauts. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon using the propulsion systems tested and qualified for human spaceflight at WSTF. Today, WSTF is a preeminent resource for testing and evaluating potentially hazardous materials, space flight components, and rocket propulsion systems. The laboratory services at WSTF are available to NASA, the Department of Defense, other federal agencies, universities, and commercial industry.
Nestled in the foothills of the San Andres Mountains, WSTF is just east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. This open-range high-altitude desert is a kaleidoscope of natural wonders and serves as habitat for the 90 sq.-mi. San Andres National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range also adjoins the mountain range, creating a federally protected corridor of public safety and limited access. The controlled remote property and moderate desert climate are an ideal setting for year-round testing.
WSTF has supported every U.S. human space flight from Apollo to the Shuttle Program and is preparing to support propulsion systems and materials and components testing for the Constellation Program. WSTF also operates a shuttle landing training facility, White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH), where laser-leveled runways help prepare shuttle astronauts for final approaches and landings. The site’s runways, navigational aids, and control facilities continuously stand ready as a backup shuttle landing site. As it returned from its third orbital test flight, Space Shuttle Columbia landed at White Sands Space Harbor on March 30, 1982.
Over the ensuing years, numerous full-scale propulsion systems for the Apollo Service Propulsion and Lunar Modules, Space Shuttle Orbiter, the International Space Station, as well as commercial and military upper stages and planetary exploration spacecraft, have been developed and qualified through exhaustive simulated mission duty cycle testing. WSTF is also evaluating upgraded or redesigned shuttle orbiter components to extend service life, enhance performance, and improve mission safety. WSTF is formally certified to perform precision cleaning and depot-level refurbishment of shuttle orbital maneuvering engines, reaction control system thrusters, and several other flight-critical propulsion system components.
WSTF was again prepared in 2003 after the Columbia disaster on February 1, when NASA requested immediate testing in support of NASA’s monumental Return to Flight effort. Within weeks, WSTF engineered a Low Velocity Test Facility to begin testing the effects of ice impacts on shuttle thermal tiles. WSTF provided additional Return to Flight support by resolving fuel valve seal extrusion concerns, evaluating the impact penetration sensor system, processing shuttle reaction control subsystem thrusters, and testing other flight essential materials.
The scientific investigation of explosion phenomena at WSTF is aimed at improving safety at launch facilities and other areas where hazardous materials are used. Using ultra high-speed instrumentation to measure the effects of exploding liquid and solid propellants, we can more precisely define safety and structural requirements for new and existing launch facilities.
As a center of technical excellence in the fields of high-pressure oxygen systems and materials and rocket propellant safety, WSTF offers functional and performance evaluation tests; hazards/failure analyses of materials, components, and complete systems; system design evaluation and recommendations; and safety training courses and manuals.
Although WSTF is primarily responsible for supporting NASA programs, in recent years the facility has taken on the additional mission of helping industrial firms to design, test, and operate hazardous systems. A variety of tests and laboratory research and development are requested each year by all NASA Centers, the Department of Defense, other government agencies, and private industry.
Because private industry assistance is furnished on a cost-reimbursable basis, NASA is able to provide, at little or no cost to the government, a service that enhances national safety and benefits individual companies in more efficient designs and better product performance. Industry gets a bargain, too, because the cost of the service is typically modest in comparison with what it would take for the company to generate the data on its own. For example, WSTF test facilities are among the most extensive in the nation for space-simulated vacuum firings of solid and liquid rocket propulsion systems. Many companies simply do not have their own facilities, and advanced technology frequently creates a need for testing that is beyond the company’s in-house capability. In addition, the professional personnel at WSTF provide the technical expertise and support necessary to manage cost-effective, timely, and accurate testing and evaluation of materials, components, and propulsion systems.
The expertise of WSTF employees has promoted a safety culture that exemplifies the values established by government and industry standards. White Sands Test Facility has received recognition as a five-star Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) site. WSTF was the first of the NASA sites to be certified in ISO 9001 and 14001 due to employee dedication to safety and adherence to standards.