On tonight’s episode of America Declassified, airing at 10|9c, our intrepid investigators uncover 3 of our country’s secrets, including a new NSA data center and a possible underground bunker hidden beneath Denver International Airport. Geoscientist Ben McGee visited the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to find out just what’s going down at the super secret spot. Here he recounts his experience:
Next to a lonely collection of unoccupied trailers at the western edge of the White Sands Missile Range’s Alkali Flat, our entire crew stared in disbelief at the more than one-hundred-foot-tall, monolithic wall of blowing selenite — or crystallized gypsum — looming over our destination: the abandoned White Sands Space Harbor.
I was to lead our caravan, navigating by GPS coordinates (as there were no landmarks), and forge into restricted territory where the roads — to our genuine surprise – had simply disappeared.
With little warning, we were in the thick of what I can only describe as a geological maelstrom. And as if the missing roads, obliterated by the relentless marching gypsum dunes, weren’t challenge enough, the gale-force tower of gypsum sand quickly swallowed us whole. While trying to navigate the blinding white-out by GPS alone, the first thing that shocked me was the color of the gypsum itself — it was an almost piercing white that seemed truly alien in contrast to the colors of the Nevada desert I grew up in. It also became clear that the sands of the selenite dunes blow differently than the sands we’re all accustomed to. The sharp, angular crystals of White Sands flew a bit higher and farther than one might expect. An unsettling darkness fell on what was an otherwise cloudless summer day as the billowing wall of gypsum then blocked out the sun, and the temperature dropped into the 60s. This is where we left Earth entirely … before us were true, white-out conditions in the absence of rain or clouds, surrounded by a desert of bright white powder.
As we neared the vestiges of the spaceport runways themselves, I hopped out of the car. It was then that our journey truly became a full-body experience. My wind-meter (anemometer) pegged gusts of 40 miles per hour, and the gypsum was channeled into drifts streaming around us. The tiniest of these particles, however, appeared and behaved much like talcum powder. While you couldn’t really feel them as they flew by, these insidious little guys seemed hellbent on infiltrating the eyes and nose — and they were good at it, too.
This all may sound like it would have been an unpleasant ordeal — but as a geologist with a knack for geomorphology, the study of how geological processes behave and change landscapes, I was actually having the time of my life!
Climbing back into our cars and vans, (but not before the salvos of selenite destroyed 2 of our crew’s 3 cameras) I checked our GPS coordinates and punched them into our rendezvous point at the runway intersection, where kindred spirit and longtime White Sands historian Jim Eccles awaited me, unable to contain the smile on his face as well. It was there, on the spaceport runways, that I felt the whole America Declassified project coalesce as a travel adventure.
This world has much adventure and discovery to offer us, and I sincerely hope that our work helps bring that sense of curiosity, exploration and discovery to viewers in a way that inspires them to begin — or perhaps revisit — their own travel adventures.
As I like to say – “Semper Exploro” – Always Explore!
Ben McGee is an interdisciplinary geoscientist and aspiring astronaut, an exploration-minded skeptic, and a staunch advocate for science outreach who feels that scientists have a social responsibility to help the public find answers to questions they have about the world around them.