Mar 13

Air Force space shuttle astronauts introduced at Vandenberg

History celebrates success.

Failure tends to be followed by obscurity, rumor and fear.

One could argue that the biggest monument to construction failure in the region is Space Launch Complex Six (Slick -6) at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The land was added to the base via a court enforced eminent domain purchase of the 15,000 acre Sudden Ranch. The area is now known as Vandenberg’s South Base, home of some of the installation’s  most secret programs.

Vandenberg Air Force Base allows easy launches for polar orbits, perfect for spy missions over what was then communist territory. Florida specialized in equatorial orbits. Polar launches from Cape Canaveral required sacrifices in payload.

SLC-6 was supposed to be a cutting edge facility for manned spaceflight. The Manned Orbiting Laboratory was designed to be a manned spy space station. Construction began in March 1966 after the land was taken via condemnation.  But $3 billion later it was mothballed with construction 90% complete. Though mothball in this case largely means allowed to rust in the salty fog.

Unmanned space craft did the job for $225 million. Delays, cost overruns and emerging technology doomed the MOL.

Resurrected in 1979 to be the West Coast spaceport, the Slick-6  Space Shuttle facility construction was put on hold after an additional $3.5 billion was spent. The explosion of the shuttle Challenger in January 1986 forced officials to more carefully look at the engineering assumptions made for the repurposed site. They discovered that there were critical parts of the site that would be severely damaged in a launch and would require much more money to fix.

Mothballs again.

Combined cost of the MOL and Space Shuttle programs stood at over $6 billion with no launches. SLC-6 was later repurposed for a third time for smaller rockets but their launch success record was not good.

Rumors circulated of a Chumash curse and apparently in the late 1990s a jittery contractor hired local tribal leaders to perform a purification ceremony to lift the curse. The one article I could find online that explores this topic argues that it is more likely to find bureaucratic incompetence rather than a curse at the root of the problems at Slick-6.

At the time of the following article the Challenger had not yet exploded, with reverberations to be felt on both coasts. It was a more optimistic time October 15, 1985 when this article was published, though it is a bit of ominous foreshadowing that the President did not show up in person for the ceremony. His ranch was about 30 miles down the road, surely it could have been scheduled when he was in town if he had really wanted to be there.

Astronauts Edward Aldridge, left, John Watterson, Dale Gardner, Richard Mullane, Guy Gardner and Robert Crippen sit inside the new orbiter maintenance facility at the Vandenberg Air Force Base space shuttle complex. ©Doug Parker/Telegram-Tribune

Vandenberg opens new space shuttle base

By Tom Fulks


America’s second spaceport was officially opened Tuesday at Vandenberg Air Force Base with pomp, and circumstance and a blessing from President Ronald Reagan.

“Today the country takes another giant step in the already very successful space shuttle program by the completion of the Vandenberg Space Shuttle launch and Landing Complex,” the president said.

Reagan’s statement was read by the shuttle crew member Edward C. “Pete” Aldridge Fr., undersecretary for the Air Force.

“You have added a significant new capability that will allow the space shuttle to fly over any part of the world, a very important addition to the already impressive list of unique shuttle attributes,” Reagan’s statement said.

Aldridge and six other members of the shuttle’s crew delivered remarks and posed for cameras in the giant orbiter maintenance facility that will house the West Coast’s first shuttle.

Aldridge said Tuesday was the original launch date for the West Coast space shuttle, and since no launch would be made, the Air Force took the occasion to show off the completed facility.

Vandenberg Space Shuttle astronauts are introduced in the October 16, 1985 Telegram-Tribune.

News teams from across the country and around the world toured the space port before meeting the crew.

Capt. Rick Sanford, an Air Force spokesman, said Tuesday’s ceremony marked the end of five years of construction on the space shuttle port.

“We’re ready to begin preparations for our launch early next year,” Sanford said of the flight next march 20, in which the shuttle Discovery will be the first spacecraft to carry humans into polar orbit.

Navy Capt. Robert  L. Crippen, mission commander, said Tuesday Vandenberg’s space shuttle program went “from the development to the operational stage.”

Crippen said launches from Vandenberg will allow the shuttles to circle the earth from top to bottom rather than around the equator. Crippen, a veteran of four shuttle flights, said the polar orbits will allow shuttle-launched spy and scientific satellites to photograph most of the globe, including the Soviet Union.

Six of seven members of the March 20 crew appeared at the shuttle maintenance building after 1,000 workers who built the $2.8 billion launch-and-landing complex heard Alddridge read the congratulatory message from Reagan.

Other crew members of the March mission attending the ceremony included Air Force Lt. Col. Guy S. Gardner, a pilot;  Navy Cmdr. Dale S. Gardner; Air Force Col. Richard M. Mullane; and the two mission specialists, and Air Force Maj. John Brett Watterson. The seventh crew member Air Force Maj. Jerry L. Ross, did not attend.

Discovery is scheduled to arrive at the base Nov. 22 after a flight from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, Sanford said. A test-firing of its engines expected Feb. 11 he said.

The new spaceport will be the third place in the world from which manned space flights are launched. The others are Kennedy Space Center and the Soviet Union’s Baiknour Cosmodrome, in Kazakstan, according to the Associated Press.

The Air Force built the new launch complex at Vandenberg because a launch into polar orbit from the base avoids flight over populated areas, Crippin said.

The Air force envisions launching shuttles from Vandenberg twice a year, while the two launch pads at Kennedy Space Center are expected eventually to see 24 liftoffs annually, Sanford said.

The public will not be allowed on the base to view the March 20 launch. The launch site, nicknamed “Slick Six,” is flanked by hills, and news reporters and photographers will have to watch the launch on closed-circuit television.

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