rocket history
Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy
Hermann Oberth
Robert H. Goddard
Wernher von Braun
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Thor, Agena, and Delta
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Vandenberg Air Base
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Vandenberg Air Base

Space Launch Complex (SLC) 6 as it appeared at the time of the Challenger accident in 1986.

Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is often referred to by its workers as America's quiet launch site, is located at 34.7 degrees north latitude, at a spot on the rugged Central California coast where the shoreline runs east and west. Because of this unique geography, rockets launched from Vandenberg can fly nearly due south and not cross over land until they reach Antarctica. This is ideal for launches to polar orbit, because spent rocket stages or failed launches pose no threat to inhabited land. Vandenberg has therefore been the launch site for numerous reconnaissance and Earth observation satellites that require polar orbits.

The spot where Vandenberg is located was occupied by Native Americans of the Chumash tribes before being acquired by Mexican ranchers and later white settlers in the 19th century. It was a sleepy, occasionally storm-battered, section of the coast northwest of the city of Santa Barbara used primarily for farming and cattle grazing. The primary large town was Lompoc (pronounced “lom-poke”), located inland from the sea protected from storms by a low mountain range. The only real excitement for the area for decades was the occasional shipwreck, culminating most dramatically with the beaching of seven U.S. Navy destroyers in 1923 at Honda Point. In World War II the U.S. Army needed to establish a new training facility and acquired a large swath of land north of Point Conception because it was isolated. The Pacific Rail Line ran up the coast and provided easy access to Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Army opened Camp Cooke in 1941 and used it to train infantry, tank crews, and other soldiers. Cooke was closed in 1945 and reopened in 1951 during the Korean War. It was then closed down again at the end of the war and the land rented to local farmers.

In 1956, a couple of Air Force officers assigned to the WS-117L reconnaissance satellite program flew to Cooke to check it out as a possible site to conduct operational training for ICBM launches as well as future reconnaissance satellite launches. Although the Atlas ICBM was going to be tested at Cape Canaveral, the head of the ballistic missile program, Brigadier General Bernard Schriever, wanted a facility closer to his headquarters in Los Angeles where Air Force crews could train to launch the missiles over the Pacific Ocean. Camp Cooke was perfect. The Air Force acquired the northern parts of the base, but the U.S. Navy acquired some territory as part of the Naval Missile Facility, Point Arguello (NMFPA).

Air Force personnel and civilian contractors quickly set about reopening many of Camp Cooke's old buildings, pulling boards from windows and chasing rattlesnakes from corners. They also began pouring concrete at several launch pads near the ocean. The first pad was originally Complex 75-3, but in 1966 was renamed Space Launch Complex 1—abbreviated SLC-1 and referred to as “Slick 1.” A launch complex usually consisted of a reinforced concrete blockhouse where the launch crew sat, one or more wooden buildings for tools and equipment, a bathroom and cafeteria for launch personnel, and usually two or more launch pads. (The SLC designations will be used hereafter, although some of the pads originally had different designations.)

The railroad tracks up the California coast run through Vandenberg AFB. Trains have to stop when a launch is scheduled.

The first Thor intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) was launched from Vandenberg on December 23, 1958. It was successful and was followed a month later by the first attempted Discoverer launch, which was actually a cover for the CORONA spy satellite program. This launch attempt ended in a dud when a “sneak circuit” in the Agena upper stage nearly caused an explosion. The attempt was nicknamed “Discoverer Zero” by the launch crews who learned valuable lessons from the failure. A month later, on February 28, 1959, they tried again with another rocket and satellite named Discoverer 1. Discoverer 1 consisted of an Agena A upper stage fitted with instruments but no operational payload and mounted atop a Thor rocket. The initial launch was successful, but the satellite was never detected in orbit. The Air Force had already issued a press release calling the launch a success and therefore the service stuck to its story despite increasing doubt among those who worked on the project as to whether the spacecraft had ever reached orbit. Most of those involved in the launch now believe that Discoverer 1 fell on Antarctica.

In 1958, Cooke was formally renamed Vandenberg Air Force Base, after an early commander in chief of the Air Force, General Hoyt Vandenberg. The Air Force quickly built more Thor launch pads, SLC-2E (East) and SLC-2W (West). Over the next few years it quickly began adding Atlas missile test and rocket launch pads as well as various Atlas silos. Each of these facilities had different requirements. Rocket launch pads were above ground and required equipment to keep the payload cool and provide electricity and payload monitoring. They had towers to run connections for fuel, electricity and air conditioning to the Agena upper stages and the payloads. Although extensive, many Vandenberg launch pads tended to be simpler and smaller than those built at Cape Canaveral, the country's primary launch site, located in Florida. In contrast to the rocket pads, the missile launch silos were underground and had no requirements to support the payload. They were used for operational training—a regular launch crew based around the United States would be selected to travel to Vandenberg to launch a missile out over the Pacific Ocean toward distant Kwajelein Atoll.

SLC-3 was the first Atlas launch complex and was the site of numerous launches of Samos spy satellites and later the KH-7 GAMBIT high-resolution satellites. SLC-4, which was also used for Atlas launches, was refurbished and in 1966 became the first Titan launch complex. Its two pads SLC-4W and SLC-4E, were heavily used for launching KH-8 GAMBIT satellites. SLC-5 became operational in 1962 with the launch of its first Scout rocket. SLC-3 and 4 are still in operation, whereas SLC-5 was closed down in the mid 1990s. SLC-10, another Thor pad, was used to train Strategic Air Command anti-satellite missile teams and later became the site of numerous weather satellite launches. It is preserved as a National Historic Site.

Vandenberg also sprouted numerous additional support facilities, most notably Cooke Tracking Station, which is more popularly known on the base as Big Sky Ranch. Several other launch tracking facilities are also located on the base. The development of the Titan ICBM program led to the creation of numerous launch pads as well as silo complexes. The advent of the Minuteman ICBM program led to the development of a number of additional underground silos to the north of the main facility, an area known as North Base.

In 1964, the Naval Missile Facility, Point Arguello, became part of Vandenberg. Two years later the launch pads were renamed. Vandenberg was extremely busy during this time, with an average of two rocket or missile launches per week at its peak. At this time the Air Force also began to significantly expand the base by acquiring the Sudden Ranch to the south, where it began constructing its most notorious facility, SLC-6.

SLC-6 was first developed to launch giant Titan IIIM rockets with Air Force crews and Manned Orbiting Laboratory space stations. MOL was cancelled in 1969 and the facility was completed and then mothballed, remaining unused for more than a decade. In the late 1970s, the Air Force prepared to convert the facility to launch Space Shuttles on classified missions to place reconnaissance satellites in polar orbits. The extensive construction plans brought considerable protests from local Chumash Native American activists, who believe that stretch of the coast is sacred and the gateway to the afterlife. SLC-6 became the most massive construction project on the base. Large mobile structures were erected to enclose the Shuttle on its launch pad. Shuttle and payload processing buildings, a seaport and a lengthened runway were also constructed. But SLC-6 soon ran into numerous technical and schedule problems amid allegations of drug use among the construction crews and shoddy workmanship. The first Vandenberg Space Shuttle launch was scheduled for 1986, but after the Challenger disaster the facility was placed in hibernation and then closed again, after the expenditure of billions of dollars. Rumours persisted that the site had been cursed by the Indians, but it had actually been cursed by poor planning and bad workmanship.

Despite the expenditure of many billions of dollars, not a single rocket was launched from SLC-6 until 1995, when a small Athena rocket lifted off from a corner of the mothballed facility. It, and another rocket launched in 1997, failed to achieve orbit, but a third Athena launch in 1999, carrying the Ikonos-1 commercial imagery satellite, was successful. SLC-6 has been converted to a launch facility for Delta IV rockets.

Unlike swampy Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg is not flat. Most of the terrain rises up from the ocean in a series of crags and mesas, and an observer can look out upon the ocean and up and down the coast. The manufactured facilities like launch towers are often obscured behind low mountains, making it hard to see them until a rocket comes roaring off the pad. The weather is often cold and foggy, and launch crews frequently fire their rockets in the fog, so that they are quickly lost from sight once they rise off their pads and sail into space on their often-classified missions.