White Sands Space Harbor

White Sands Space Harbor

Landing strip at White Sands Space Harbor Landing strip at White Sands Space Harbor.

The airfield known as Northrup Strip was established around 1948 by the U.S. Army as a recovery landing site for battle-damaged drone aircraft. The Army still uses White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH) for that purpose, evacuating the site for potentially hazardous landings. NASA selected the site for Space Shuttle pilot training in early 1976 and lengthened the original 10,000 ft (3,100 m) long airstrip (Runway 17/35) to 15,000 ft (4,600 m). The first STA training flight at WSSH was on August 13, 1976. A second runway (23/05) was added soon after, running from the northeast to the southwest crossing the original north-south landing strip. Minimum support facilities were in place at that time.

When Northrup Strip was designated as a back-up orbiter landing site in 1979, the facilities were expanded with a microwave scanning beam landing system (MSBLS), precision approach path indicators (PAPI), inner glide slope (IGS) lights, a deservice area with a crane for Shuttle-carrier mating operations, and viewing and operations areas with a dispensary trailer, several temporary buildings, and attendant utilities. Both runways were lengthened to 35,000 ft (11,000 m). After the Space Transportation System-3 (STS-3) landing on March 30, 1982, Northrup Strip was renamed White Sands Space Harbor and several new features were added, such as landing aids and a crash and rescue facility.

Shuttle landing training at WSSH.Shuttle landing training at WSSH.

During the "Return-to-Flight" era following the Challenger accident in 1986, numerous other changes were made. Runway 17/35 was laser-leveled and both runways were enhanced with 300 ft (91 m) wide shoulders. A new WSSH Operations Control Center and a concrete deservice area with tow-way were built southwest of the lakebed to minimize problems with blowing gypsum. A new daily operations area and several small support buildings were erected at the control tower. Dikes and drainage ditches were built to control runway flooding, and the original fixed crane was removed.

In 1989, a third runway was constructed to allow pilots to practice transatlantic abort landings (TAL). The TAL runways are smaller and narrower than the primary runways. This runway simulates the TAL runway in Ben Guerir, Morocco due to its size and markings and one end simulates an emergency landing runway. In 1992, a radar monitoring facility was built at nearby Holloman Air Force Base to track and safeguard NASA aircraft during operations at WSSH. This function moved to the WSSH Operations Control Center, located in the southwest corner of WSSH in 1999 with the installation of a more modern radar tracking system. Runway 23/05 was marked to simulate the lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base to enhance training opportunities. Runway 17/35 simulates the runway at Kennedy Space Center. A launch and landing site for testing the prototype SSRT vehicle for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation was constructed in 1993 at the old deservice pad area.

Page Last Updated: March 6th, 2014
Page Editor: Judy Corbett