LOS ANGELES — Perched in the fog-covered hills of Lompoc sits a massive 23-story rocket ready to blast off from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The three-engine Delta IV Heavy rocket, the tallest ever to be launched from the base, will be carrying a top-secret spy satellite for the U.S. government capable of snapping pictures so detailed it can distinguish the make and model of an automobile thousands of miles below, analysts say.
As early as Thursday afternoon, the massive rocket will lift off from the base’s Space Launch Complex 6, leaving a thick white plume over the Pacific Ocean as it cuts across the afternoon sky. At 235 feet tall, it’s so large that base officials have studied whether the thunderous blastoff will shatter windows nearby.
"We got the word out to people, so they don’t think it’s an earthquake," said Lt. Ann K. Blodzinski, an Air Force spokeswoman. "Even if you don’t see it, you’re definitely going to feel it. It’s significantly more powerful than our typical launches at Vandenberg."
The Air Force has closed nearby locations, such as Jalama Beach County Park, as a precaution. But that won’t stop townspeople from coming out to see the show, said Lompoc Mayor John Linn. The base is the city’s largest employer.
"Everyone will be in their frontyards for this one," he said. "Living here, you get used to launches. But this is different. This is the big kahuna."