Delayed indirectly by last year’s wildfires as well as by technical troubles this year, an Atlas V rocket and its clandestine cargo are on track for a Wednesday morning blastoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in northern Santa Barbara County.
Liftoff of the United Launch Alliance booster carrying a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office is planned during a window opening at 9:49 a.m. Because the rocket will carry a top-secret payload into space, the launch window has not been released, but it is not expected to extend beyond 10:30 a.m.
“Things are going really well,” Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Zarybnisky, 4th Space Launch Squadron commander, said Friday. “I will say we are very happy to see blue skies and that nice bright, shining sun outside. That is nice after all the rain we’ve had.”
Atlas V rockets, standing 190 feet tall and weighing 720,000 pounds with fuel, blast off from Space Launch Complex-3 East on South Base, with the mobile service tower visible on the horizon while looking south of Ocean Avenue.
“This mission has obviously been a little protracted than we would normally have,” Zarybnisky said. “We moved the launch date twice — once due to the fires, that obviously drove some changes to our schedule, and then we had a technical issue during one of our wet dress rehearsals that we had to work through.
“We successfully fixed that issue, proved it out in a second wet dress rehearsal, and we are moving forward,” he added.
The rocket is also carrying a special tribute to Engineer Ryan Osler, the Ventura County Fire Department member killed when the water tender he was riding in flipped over en route to the Canyon Fire. His family visited the launch pad recently to see his name on the booster.
The tribute says: Friend, Father and Fallen Hero, Ryan S. Osler, VCFD, 1978 - 2016.
Recent stormy weather has not slowed crews from completing their task list, in part thanks to the mobile service tower — or big garage — sheltering the rocket on the launch pad. The tower will roll away in the hours before liftoff, exposing the rocket to spectators around the Lompoc Valley if fog does not hinder the views.
“There’s nothing quite like watching a rocket launch, that’s for sure,” Zarybnisky said.
The launch weather forecast calls for only a 10 percent likelihood conditions will force a delay, Vandenberg officials said.
Top viewing sites for Lompoc Valley spectators without base access including the peak of Harris Grade Road, Highway 246, and near the intersection of Moonglow and Stardust roads in Vandenberg Village.
Unlike commercial customers or NASA, the National Reconnaissance Office — whose own existence remained top secret until the early 1990s — doesn’t talk about its payloads used to gather intelligence over rugged terrain or hostile territory.