Before U.S. astronauts could collect a single moon rock — there was the desert sands of Spanish Springs — where many of the rockets used by America’s space program were tested. Those tests happened at a facility operated by Rocketdyne at the Sky Ranch Airport, between Spanish Springs Road and Calle de la Plata.
My Uncle Orval Harrison retired from Rockwell/Rocketdyne in early 1970, after spending more than 30-years working on projects for NASA. Now I’m living in Spanish Springs where Uncle Orval, unknown to me at the time I moved to Nevada, worked.
He was married to Dad’s blood relative, Aunt Frances, an Arne by birth. I believe she passed away in Salem, Oregon, February 19, 1976 at the age of 73.
Anyway, Sky Ranch Airport was a 1940s auxiliary field and the site of the first Reno Air Races, in 1964 and 1965. From 1962 to 1970, once known as Rockwell International, Rocketdyne operated a facility known as the Nevada Field Laboratory.
The main NFL operational support facility was located near the corner of Whiskey Springs and Ironwood Roads, north of Winnemucca Ranch Road. Between 1974 and the early 90s a privately owned company operated a machine shop and warehouse on the land.
Engines for the Gemini, the Saturn, the Lunar Module, Apollo and the Space Shuttle Program were tested at this area and included three sites. Because of this some parts of the former test area are listed as Superfund environmental clean-up sites.
Of the 126,000 acres, only 1,600 acres were used for testing, the remainder was home to administrative and support facilities. Debris, underground tanks and contaminated soil have since been removed by Rocketdyne, which put in numerous monitoring wells throughout the area.
One of these monitoring wells is located at the end of Axe Handle Canyon Road. Another along Right Hand Canyon Road and the first half of Paiute Circle, with a third at the eastern end of Whiskey Springs Road.
It’s sad to think the next American to head into space may be aboard a craft powered by a Russian-designed rocket — and that Uncle Orval’s hard work is lost to history.