Great Falls Nike Missile Launch Site W-83
This location was one of several sites operated by U.S. Army Air Command to test Nike anti-aircraft missiles between 1954 and 1962. It was one of three sites in Fairfax County and one of thirteen surrounding Washington, D.C. and Baltimore to protect the metro area from Soviet attack. The site was known as Herndon/Dranesville, though colloquially and on the historical marker it is called Great Falls. In the 1980s, the Defense Mapping Agency used the launch site for radar observations. Suburban development, an elementary school, and two parks -- Turner Farm County Park and Great Falls Nike Park -- are now located here.
Backstory and Context
During the Cold War, the U.S. Army Air Command established 13 launch sites for Nike Ajax missiles, intended to protect Washington, D.C. from aerial attack. Each site included a launch area with an "Integrated Fire Control Site" about a mile downrange. The IntegraThis site, known as W-83, was built in 1954 and became active the following year. The site closed in 1962, with weapons and other dangerous equipment removed.
First-generation Nike Ajax missiles had a range of 25 miles, able to reach a speed of Mach 2.3 (1841.45 mph, or .5115 miles per second). Each was 34 feet long and 2400 pounds (1.2 tons).
After the closure of the site as a missile installation, the U.S. Army Map Service used it as a research facility. Here, the service developed a satellite tracking program eventually making up part of the Defense Mapping Agency in 1972. This agency was integral to the development of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. This operation ceased in 1993.
In the 1970s and 1980s, suburban development encroached on the former missile launch site. The launch site's buildings were destroyed and missile magazines buried. Fairfax County Park Authority acquired part of the site and added it to existing park land. A former barracks site became the location of Forestville Elementary School in 1980. The parks now include playgrounds, a tennis court, two baseball fields, a turf field, and an astronomical observatory.
Eventually the area became Great Falls Nike Missile Launch Park. A radar dome is accessible to visitors and two radar towers are visible. An earthworks berm, where missiles were fueled, also remains. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources placed a historic marker here in 1994.
exploringwithesch. Great Falls Nike Missile Launch Site, Atlas Obscura. Accessed May 21st 2020. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/great-falls-nike-missile-launch-site-w-83
exploringwitheasch. Great Falls Nike Integrated Fire Control Site W-83, Atlas Obscura. Accessed May 27th 2020. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/great-falls-nike-integrated-fire-control-site-w-83.
Fairfax County Park Authority. Turner Farm Park Master Plan Revision, Planning and Development. January 24th 2018. Accessed May 27th 2020. https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/planning-development/turnerfarm.
Swain, Craig. Great Falls Nike Missile Launch Site, Historical Marker Database. June 16th 2017. Accessed May 21st 2020. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=2091.