Retrotechtacular: Rocket Sleds

If you need to test rockets, missiles, or ejection-seat systems, your first instinct would be to shoot them up in the air and see what happens. But if you want data, film footage, or the ability to simply walk away from a test, you might consider running your experiment on a rocket sled.

The Holloman High Speed Test Track is a 15 km long stretch of meticulously straight railroad track located in the middle of the New Mexico desert, and bristling with measurement equipment. Today’s Retrotechtacular video (embedded below) gives you the guided tour. And by the way, the elderly colonel who narrates? He doesn’t just run the joint — he was one of the human test subjects put on a rocket sled to test the effects of high acceleration on humans. You can see him survive a run around 1:00 in.

The video isn’t all that long, but it’s slow-paced. High points include the water braking system in the first few minutes. The “momentum exchange technique” is secret code for filling the space between the tracks with water and ramming a scoop into it, throwing water forwards and thus slowing the sled down.

At 10:40, there’s an almost bizarre transition to dream-like slow motion sequences of various rockets making their runs. Great stuff. In between, there’s a lot of detail about the multiple cameras, light-break sensors, and other instrumentation that was state of the art in the 1960s.

Holloman is still in use today, as far as we know, which makes this Retrotechtacular a bit more contemporary than usual. The fastest run took place in 2003 at Mach 8.6. Not bad for some strips of metal dating back to 1949.

We can’t leave the subject of crazy rocket sleds without mentioning these mental Swedes or The Black Beetle.

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