Watching a rocket launch a new satellite into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
We older folks who remember the moon landing or seeing the space shuttle land at Edwards can check one more item off our bucket list – and do it just five hours north of San Diego.
With the scrubbing of future space exploration by NASA, you can no longer travel to Florida to see the launch of a large rocket. But thanks to Vandenberg Air Force Base, about an hour north of Santa Barbara, you don't need to.
Vandenberg has become the nation’s home for satellite launches for both private industry and the government. In 2014, Atlas and Delta rockets will have been launched four times by the end of this year. The base has been an active launch site since the 1960s. So much so that the locals in the nearest town of Lompoc are pretty casual about the rattling windows and thundering vibrations.
“You drove all the way up here for this?” questioned a clerk in a grocery store. Yep, me and hundreds of others from as far away as Ashland, OR and Boulder, CO.
Leaving at 4:00 a.m. on August 13, we missed most of the L.A. traffic, and arrived in plenty of time for the scheduled launch at 11:28 a.m. A daytime launch is unusual. Most of Vandenberg’s launches are at night.
The search begins...
Good thing we got there early. We quickly used up our two-hour lead time driving back and forth from one end of town to the other, with misguided directions from both the base’s Public Affairs Office and their website. Other first-timers we met complained about the same misinformation.
Perhaps these launches have become even too casual for even the Air Force to know what's going on. Following the base’s online public viewing instructions, we approached the base’s Santa Maria gate. The guards told us today’s launch would not be in their area, but 15 miles back into town on “South Base.”
As we headed back into town, a call to Public Affairs corrected the guard’s information and sent us back to where we were. Near Highway 1, just outside the base’s fence, we found an unmarked dirt road that led us to a eucalyptus- and pine-tree covered hill. We eventually found the six-stepped concrete bleachers described on the base’s FAQ website, overlooking the ocean, and a huge lunch pad about three miles away.
Houston, we have a problem. My family and I were the only ones there. Could we really be the only ones interested in seeing this launch?
Another call to Public Affairs corrected their earlier advisement, and we headed back into town, arriving at the suggested corner of Ocean Ave. (Hwy. 246) and Floradale Ave. – the middle of vast agricultural fields stretching out for miles in each direction. Nice to look at, but I didn’t see anything that would indicate a launch viewing area.
Finally, Airman Phipps (his Air Force rank) with Public Affairs took charge and directed us to simply drive west out of town, towards the beach, on Ocean Ave. until the Santa Barbara County sheriff’s department’s roadblock at the south base’s gate. He assured me I couldn’t miss it.
The crowd waits outside Vandenberg AFB.
Sure enough, about five miles west of town, we began to see NASA logos on buildings behind the base’s fence. At the roadblock we found the thrones of other launch enthusiasts parked on both sides of the highway. Airman Phipps ought to be promoted to base commander.
The launch, at last
Finally, there it was! Just standing on the roadside, looking across farmed fields and over the hill, we could see the top of the launch tower, and the steam-spewing top of the rocket.
The rocket sat on launch pad “Slick 3 East” (Written as “SLC” meaning Space Launch Complex), about two and a half miles south of our Ocean Ave. location. According to regulars, this is the closet the public can get to any of the base’s launch pads.
David Nguyen from La Jolla and his buddy Russell Ray from PB also made the drive up, choosing to camp nearby for a few days. The UCSD students had arrived long before others, and had several cameras set up on tripods.
One of the lead engineers for Ball Corporation, the builders of the World View 3 satellite that now sat atop a Atlas V rocket, was there. David brought his whole family out from the company’s base in Boulder, CO. Surprisingly, he said the company’s workers are not invited on base for launches.
Someone who seemed very knowledgeable was Palm Springs resident Steve. He said he grew up on Vandenberg, and now brings his daughters to every launch. Steve advised the crowd how to use our cell phones to listen in to launch command via spaceflightnow.com. And not to get excited when launch command announced a hold at T-minus 20 minutes.
“This is routine,” said Steve. “It is the second-to-last chance to look at all the systems and shut it down if needed.”
The final hold came at T minus four minutes, for about 20 seconds. Steve again said it was a routine hold to check all systems and see if any flight engineers had any final reason not to launch.
This flight, unlike others, had a pretty large window of opportunity – 15 minutes – should something go wrong in the last few minutes. (Vandenberg had a Delta II rocket launch scheduled for 2:45 a.m. on July 1. It had only a 15-second window and had to be delayed until the next day.)
Once our launch’s sequence was resumed at T minus 3 minutes and 30 seconds, the excitement reached a feverish pitch. Grown men like myself, even young children, were bouncing on the balls of the feet, with anticipation like a Christmas morning. Something very cool was going to happen very soon.
Not realizing there was a transmission delay between flight command, through the various websites, into our cell phone provider’s towers, and finally to our individual phones, at around T-minus one minute the rocket unexpectedly took off. In our excitement, we completely missed hearing the 10 . . . 9 . . . 8 countdown as the rocket was already one minute into its flight.
Just like watching fireworks from a distance, we saw the rocket elevating and its powerful exhaust flames, but no sound. It seemed like several seconds before the thundering roar hit us, vibrating us to our core.
As I watched the massive rocket slowly raise, why did I start crying? I pretended I was speechless to avoid embarrassing myself in front of my teenagers. It seems I catch myself doing that more often, like during the National Anthem at Padres games, or when the B-2’s fly over the Rose Parade or the NASCAR race at Fontana Speedway.
For over a minute, we just all stood there starring into the sky in silence. It wasn’t until the plume changed when an orbital booster kicked in that hoots, hollers, and applause came from the crowd.
Perhaps my emotions were simply that of a proud American. I know that only a few counties in the world can do what I just witnessed. I affirmed that our space technology and satellites will help others around the world. (Or at least, it would now help me find the nearest pizza joint in an unfamiliar town.)
Vandenberg has two more launches scheduled for 2014. On November 5, a Delta II rocket will launch a “Soil Moisture Active Passive” satellite from the Slick 2 West pad. The launch window will be shortly after sunrise.
On December 11, a branch of our government, the National Reconnaissance Office (who knew) will launch an Atlas V rocket with a classified satellite aboard, from the same Slick 3 East pad which is clearly viewable from the west end of Ocean Ave. That’s if the government doesn’t invoke some kind of “national security” crap and try to block off exiting Lompoc west on Ocean Ave.
They have yet to announce a launch window time, and probably won’t. Obviously, the closer one gets, the better. But would foreign intelligence agents really gain any information by viewing from the Ocean Ave. vantage point? Thing is, everyone we spoke with in town said launches can be seen from anywhere in the Lompoc valley.
Do Your homework before leaving
Don’t depend on Vandenberg AFB’s website, nor NASA’s for the latest information. They are not updated regularly. Use private space enthusiast sites like spaceflightnow.com or spacearchive.info.
Also check weather conditions that might delay a launch, such high winds or coastal storms approaching. Be prepared for a delay, sometimes a whole day after scheduled launch times.
Bring binoculars and cameras. Use a tripod for video cameras. My 16-year old advised us to zoom in close to the rocket and not to depend on cropping in a photo application. Something about reducing pixels? I just took his advice for the best quality photos.
Travel To and From Lompoc
When traveling to or through L.A., never take the 405 freeway. It will never be the shortest route, time wise, with the constant widening construction in the Santa Monica/West L.A. area. Caltrans’ has been using their donkey and shovel brigades for over ten years now. Traffic will always come to a screeching halt on the 405, no matter what time day or night.
Take I-5, even though slow moving, directly into downtown L.A., to the Hollywood freeway (101). Try to travel anytime after 9 p.m. and before sunrise. If the 101 through the San Fernando Valley looks too congested on your smart phone’s map app., then stay on I-5 up to Magic Mountain and take Hwy.126 west into Ventura, to link up with the 101. Or try this route on the way home, as there are lots of fresh-picked, orchard-run fruit stands in the Fillmore area, on Hwy. 126.
Gas was just a little cheaper in Lompoc than San Diego. One should be able to make it there on one tank. Don’t fill up in Santa Barbara. High priced homes mean very high priced gas.
Fall in love with the Central Coast:
As many former residents have learned, the 101 corridor north of Santa Barbara to Santa Maria reminds coastal North County old timers of days gone by in the 1960s and 70s, with its two-lane freeway, open coastal bluffs, where agriculture and flower fields abound. But don’t worry; if you fall in love and move, the Central Coast still has all the conveniences of home: great surf spots (maybe a few more great whites with the colder water temps), 24-hour taco shops and Walmarts.
And if you wonder why there are miles of undeveloped ocean view hills north of Ventura and east of Hwy. 101? You can thank the greedy oil companies for that. Union 76 (parent company Conoco) and Chevron. They own most the vacant land, where oil is still being pumped and stored today.
What happened to the town of Surf?
Perhaps the coolest named town in California. Unfortunately the tiny hamlet of Surf, once on the beach, due west about 10 miles from Lompoc, was claimed and leveled when Vandenberg AFB was established as a space center in 1958.
A once-a-day Amtrak Pacific Surfliner will stop at the “Surf/Lompoc” station, right on the beach, just yards from the crashing waves. The “station,” however, is only a platform stop right next to the beach’s posted “No Trespassing” signs.
Fares from San Diego, Solana Beach or Oceanside Amtrak stations are around $40-50, one way.
(Pronounced Lom-pouk, not Lom-poke.)
If making more than a day trip, Lompoc is a great base for exploring the Central Coast’s wineries and towns of Solvang and Buellton. Lompoc has a clearly marked “Wine Ghetto” where the local vineyards have all converged in un-descript industrial warehouses, each with their own tasting room.
Lompoc is also is a gateway into the hills of the Santa Yenz Valley, where President Reagan and Michael Jackson had their large ranches.
A car tour of the historic trail of Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and his 1774 expedition is clearly marked by road signs through the Lompoc area. This is the same expedition which started in what is now Tucson, AZ, and went through the our own Borrego desert, which was later renamed in honor of the Spanish explorer.