Ranchers living within the vicinity of White Sands Missile Range are occasionally called on to evacuate the area for missile testing.
The ranchers' cooperation is critical to the Army's mission on the range where vast areas of vacant land are a requirement.
To show its appreciation, WSMR held it 22nd annual Rancher's Day on Sept. 19, 2019, in order to thank local ranchers who, through an agreement, are asked to leave their homes during certain test missions due to their proximity to the range. Their ranches range from areas as far northeast as Ruidoso and as far north as Socorro.
At this year's event, 35 ranchers got a glimpse of the near future for near space at Launch Complex 32, the meteorological intricacies required for space flight testing, and lunch with key WSMR leaders at the J.W. Cox Range Control Building. The building was named after the Cox family whose ranch adjoins WSMR in an area between main post and the Aguirre Springs National Recreation Area underneath the Organ Mountains.
"It was great. We enjoyed it," said rancher Jim McNutt from the McNutt Ranch. "I can't wait to come back next year and do it again."
For Sharon Knott, Rancher's Day marked her first visit to WSMR in more than 25 years after leaving ranch life in the Reserve, N.M., area for more lush terrain in Hawaii. Knott said it's good to be back in New Mexico, and described her return visit to WSMR as "awesome and very informative."
"We are thrilled you all came," said WSMR Commander David Trybula during the luncheon. "I want to make sure you are aware of the opportunities that are here as we really build the relationship and maintain the communication."
Ranchers began their visit with Boeing representatives at WSMR who are testing the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner spacecraft that will be used to shuttle astronauts and cargo to low-Earth orbit, starting with NASA missions to the International Space Station.
When the Starliner returns to Earth from those future missions, it will mark the first time an orbital space capsule built in the United States will land on land versus water. That will be made possible by using a combination of parachutes that open to slow the descent of the spacecraft, and landing airbags that inflate during final descent to absorb the initial impact loads.
The Starliner program has three major efforts happening at WSMR.
Starliner's parachute qualification drop test campaign is an important test series that validates the parachute systems. During these tests, a flight-sized test version of the Starliner capsule is lifted by a large helium balloon, launching from either Spaceport America or White Sands Missile Range depending on wind forecasts. It is lifted 40,000 feet into the Earth's stratosphere where the capsule is then released. When the actual launch occurs, the Starliner will be propelled into space by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
During its four-minute descent toward Earth during testing, the capsule achieves velocities that would occur during an actual mission. The capsule lands on a remote site at WSMR formerly used by NASA as a Space Shuttle backup landing site, used one time by Space Shuttle Columbia in 1982. Known as White Sands Space Harbor, that test landing site is actually a possible landing zone Starliner will use when returning from space.
Another test that has taken place at WSMR is the Pad Abort Test designed to prove the Starliner's abort system will whisk the capsule and its astronauts away quickly and safely in the unlikely event there is an emergency with the spacecraft's rocket.
The Pad Abort Test was launched from WSMR's Launch Complex 32, which also was used for a similar abort test for NASA's Orion spacecraft. During Starliner's abort test, the launch abort engines sent Starliner about a mile up and a mile away from the Launch Complex 32 gantry.
The third major effort involves Starliner's operational landing and recovery team. Over the past few years, that team has been training at WSMR to prepare for recovering Starliner and the astronauts after landing. Additionally, all of the equipment needed to recover Starliner for both the primary and secondary landing sites is stored and maintained at WSMR. Also, regardless of where Starliner lands, it will come back to LC-32's Flight Integration and Test Facility for initial post-flight processing before heading back to the Kennedy Space Center to prepare for another mission.
The Starliner's first mission to the International Space Station will be an uncrewed flight-test mission, followed by a crewed mission.
Following their Starliner briefing and tour, ranchers toured mobile equipment brought to the Launch Complex 32 site from the WSMR Weather Forecast Section. Accurate weather forecasts are vital to determine if weather conditions such as wind and lightning are possible.
For the Starliner to land in its target area such as the White Sands Space Harbor, Scott Startz and his team of meteorologists and technicians make complex calculations to determine when and where its parachutes should deploy to allow it to land on target.
Ranchers were given a real-world taste of weather forecasting when Knott was allowed to release a weather balloon, followed by the opportunity for Startz to show them real-time data being collected above them by the balloon ascending about 1,000 feet per minute.