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Vandenberg Air Force Base, Lompoc

When a satellite is in polar orbit, it will eventually pass over every inch of the Earth’s surface. That’s why almost all spy satellites are placed in polar orbit, and also why Vandenberg is the launching spot for almost all U.S. spy satellites.

Vandenberg is home to the 30th Space Wing, the Air Force command responsible for all missile and space launch activities on the West Coast. Because a launch to the south travels over open water until orbit is reached, Vandenberg is an ideal site for launching satellites for polar orbit in fact, the world’s first polar orbiting satellite was launched from here in 1959. Since spy satellites travel in polar orbits, all U.S. spy satellites are launched from here.

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Vandenberg is also used for launches by NASA and private contractors. Many launches use heavy boosters, such as the Titan IV and the latest version of the Atlas. Vandenberg is also where operational tests of American intercontinental ballistic missiles are conducted, with regular test flights of the Minuteman III and Peacekeeper (MX) missiles.

Civilian and non-classified military launches are publicized in advance and are great fun to watch. Even more fun to watch, however, are classified launches. These are not announced in advance and are timed for periods when another nation’s spy satellites are not overhead. Often these take place in the middle of the night or otherwise odd times.

What’s There: Vandenberg juts out into the Pacific Ocean, giving clear, no-land paths to the west and south for rocket launches. The base covers over 98,500 acres amid rolling hills.

Key Facilities: The main launch facilities at Vandenberg include space launch complex 2 (SLC-2), SLC-3, SLC-4, SLC-5, and SLC-6. SLC-2 consists of two launch pads and is used for the Delta rocket. SLC-3 has two pads and is used for Atlas rockets. SLC-4 has two pads and is used strictly for military launches. SLC-5 has one pad and is used for Scout research rockets. SLC-6 was originally intended to be the site for polar launches of the Space Shuttle, but that idea was abandoned (see Unusual Fact below). However, a slightly smaller version of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral was completed here, and the facility is now used for much smaller rockets. SLC-10 can be visited on the public tour; it is not an active launch site any longer and instead has Thor, Thor-Agena, and Bomarc missiles on display.

Secret Stuff: The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is the biggest single reason why Vandenberg exists today. Vandenberg came into being in 1957, after the first studies were being made into the possibility of military reconnaissance satellites. It was determined early that polar orbiting satellites were necessary to give photo coverage of the entire planet, and Vandenberg was the only place in the continental United States where polar launches would be feasible. The hilly terrain at Vandenberg also afforded protection from prying eyes aboard ships and submarines. Almost all launches from SLC-4 are spy satellites launches.

Getting a Look Inside: Currently, the Public Affairs Office at Vandenberg offers free tours on Wednesday at 10 a.m. The tour lasts about two hours and includes the various launch complexes and the Heritage Center that details the history of the rockets launched from Vandenberg. Advance registration is required, along with social security numbers, and persons deemed to be security risks may be refused admission. For more information and registration, call the Public Affairs Office at (805) 606-3595.

Unusual Fact: So why was Vandenberg abandoned as a Space Shuttle launch site after the facilities for it were almost 100% complete? The reason is a problem not discovered until the Challenger disaster in 1986. When it was determined that cold temperatures at launch time were responsible for the failure of the solid fuel booster rocket seals on the Challenger, the entire Vandenberg Shuttle launch facility had to be abandoned even in summer, cold winds off the Pacific here would routinely cool the booster rocket seals below their failure temperatures.

Getting There: Vandenberg is about 55 miles north of Santa Barbara along Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway). In the town of Lompoc, follow the signs for Vandenberg/Highway 1. Take the Vandenberg exit off Highway 1 and follow it for about 12 miles to the main gate and visitor center.

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