July 30, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Cold War-era memories meet the future

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For NASA, the range offers a place to land the Space Shuttle. In fact, the New Mexico range is No. 3 on the landing priority list after the Florida and California options. And once, back in 1982, the shuttle did land at White Sands. Last December, it looked like it was going to happen again, but with 20 minutes to go, the decision was made to land the shuttle in Florida. Oh, well.

As for practice targets, White Sands offers many. Montoya said the range offers "customers" tracked targets, tanks, vehicles and drones to shoot at. There's even a 3-mile-long piece of Kevlar cable hanging between two mountain peaks that targets can be hung from.

And should it be necessary, White Sands has a chamber that can simulate any kind of weather condition on Earth to see how various weapon systems will be affected.

This is not your father's military base.

After all, how many military facilities include the Trinity site, where the first-ever atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945? White Sands, does, though I was not taken to visit the site.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw the missile park--a fine collection of display pieces of old weapons like the Pershing missile, a Patriot missile battery, a Nike Hercules, an M198 Howitzer, an Athena and dozens more. This park, which is visible from the road leading into the range, seems to say: "The U.S. can kick your butt. Don't mess with us." And it's quite impressive, even for someone who grew up fearing what the existence of these weapons might mean some morning if either the Soviet or U.S. leadership woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

Perhaps the most wistful moment during my visit was when Montoya took me to the retired rocket gantry.

It was from there that the range would fire rockets like V-2s, which were modified from their original World War II-era German weapons system to be used for space exploration. There are only six left in the country, Montoya told me, and White Sands has the most complete one. Indeed, it is a beautiful thing, laid out on its side at the range's museum with its innards on display, but sporting a spiffy yellow paint job and looking every bit as vital as it ever was.

At the gantry, an old rocket--I didn't find out which kind--stands proud, designed to make this site look real. The metalwork towers over the rocket, and you almost think that at any moment, you'll hear a countdown, the engines will fire and it will blast off.

That is not to be. These days, this gantry is for display purposes only.

Except. At the top of it, barely visible, was a great-horned owl, sitting regal and looking down. It turns out this owl is part of a family of four that lives in the gantry, lording over it and making sure all is well. In a facility that trumpets its high-tech credentials, this was the perfect low-tech counterpoint.

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