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.
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.