The concept of testing the propulsion system before conducting a dynamic flight of a
missile or rocket was common practice in the beginning. The German V-2 Team (Operation
Paperclip) brought the practice with them.
This country's fledgling missile program also used
this practice in preparation for an actual firing. Very quickly, the first relatively
simple approaches of securing the motor or tying the entire vehicle down and firing the
motor (using visual observation and post test examination to determine the degree of
success of the static firing) such testing evolved into very sophisticated facilities.
As you travel today from the headquarters building you will pass two other sites en route to the 500K static test stand. Incidentally, these facilities were originally known as motor test stands but eventually common usage changed the descriptive to static test stand. On leaving the cantonment area you are headed towards the El Paso gate. The first road to the right leads to the small arms firing range and the girl scout camp. The next road proceeds to the shell of the I00K test stand. This facility was completed in 1946 and deactivated in 1960. It was used to static fire the V-2 and later the Corporal at any angle between vertical and horizontal. It could accommodate test packages measuring 8 feet in diameter and 50 feet in height.
The third road to the right was built to provide access to the 200K static test stand. This site was abandoned because of its proximity to the 100K stand before construction of a physical facility was initiated. The fourth exit on the right hand side of the highway is the entrance to the 300K static test facility. It is difficult to see from the road. It was completed in 1953 and is still in use today. It was built to test solid propellants and consists of four concrete test bays, one open test pad and a concrete control and instrumentation blockhouse protected by an earth embankment. Two bays are designed to test thrusts up to and including 300,000 pounds. The other two were equipped to handle up to 5,000 pounds, while the large open test pad has provisions for mounting units up to 100,000 pounds thrust. The 300,000 pound horizontal thrust bays are 43 feet deep and 25 feet wide and enclosed on three sides by 12 inch reinforced concrete walls 11 feet high.
Next to the 300,000 pound test facility is the 10,000 pound facility which was completed in 1949 and destroyed in 1955 when a Nike Hercules motor exploded resulting in one fatality and several injuries. There were plans in the late 1950's to rebuild the 10,000 pound facility increasing its thrust capacity to 40,000 pounds and to remodel the 300K facility increasing its capabilities to 1,000,000 pounds. Neither plan materialized because of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency decision to perform static testing at Huntsville in the future. By now you should see your destination this morning. Located some 2.8 miles from the administrative area is the 500K static test stand jutting out from the base slope of Soledad Peak like some majestic, medieval, European castle.
The 500,000 pound static test stand at one time was the largest such facility in the world and was capable of testing motors for any known or planned missile or rocket. It is situated in solid rock; unfaulted granite strata on the east face of a spur of the Organ Mountains, 4,400 feet above sea level and 200 feet above the floor of the Tularosa Basin. The design of the 500K static test stand was completed in 1947 and construction began that same year. It was completed in 1950. German V-2 motors were tested there in 1950 and 1951, Redstone motors from 1953 to 1955, Nike motors during 1956 and Corporal propulsion systems in 1957 and 1958. The Army Ballistic Missile Agency decision referred to earlier caused the facility to be idled in 1959 and essentially mothballed in 1961.
The 500K stand consisted of two propellant tanks, two pump houses, the universal motor mount and the underground fire control and observation room. The motor mount was a circular steel framework with an inside diameter of 9 feet and a length of 22 feet mounted 30 degrees to the vertical and designed to handle a sustained thrust of 500,000 pounds with a safety factor of two. The two pump houses were located above and on each side of the motor mount for the housing of propellant pumps. The pumps themselves were usually furnished by the agency performing the test. In each of the tank barricades located above the pump houses were 15,000 gallon pure aluminum tanks. Each tank barricade consisted of two separate structures, one located within the other and the annular space filled with sand. These structures were light weight concrete and marked so as to control fragmentation in the event of an explosion. Provisions were available for rapidly dumping the fuel in the event of emergencies.
The tower was originally built to fire motors with Up to 500,000 pounds of thrust at a 60 degree angle but was rebuilt to handle 525,000 pounds in a vertical plane with a maximum motor package size of eight feet by eight feet. Four thrust cells to measure firing loads were used during test firings for measuring rocket thrust. The thrust mount was designed Such that modifications could be added to test various size missiles and power plants. The interior of the facility contained the instrumentation to record a hundred different items of information on a rocket motor's behavior during the static test firing. The control room housing the elaborate instrumentation was built into the solid rock mountain. Four observation windows in the east wall faced angular mirrors which allowed indirect viewing of the motor under test.
The 936 square foot control room was reached through a 250 foot access tunnel. The room was built in a T-configuration, with the observation area and control console contained in a forward section. Behind the control area was a huge instrumentation room containing row after row of instrument panels. Measurements included data such as pressure, temperature, thrust, turbine RPM, vibration and acceleration. There were also five remote camera circuits to provide recorded visual information of the motor under test from various angles. The facility could handle motors or the complete missile. Hoists were installed on the tower. An elevator rising 45 feet above the flame pit had a 2500 pound capacity. Rails could be utilized to haul heavy assemblies from the end of the gravel access road to the bottom of the thrust mount structure.
A typical test during the days the 500K static test stand was in full operation might involve evaluating motor performance in sub-freezing temperatures. The missile was locked into place in the thrust mount above a concrete flame pit extending 60 feet straight down the side of the mountain. The missile would be loaded with low temperature propellants to produce specified temperatures. The missile motor was then ignited and as the roar and searing flame shot into the flame pit, 3,000 gallons of water per minute were sprayed into the flame pit to quench the exhaust, creating a mushroom of steam. Several hundred yards in front of the flame pit sat the "pillbox" that was employed for observation and photographic recording of the test.