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Vandenberg was poised to be a space shuttle launch site — then tragedy struck

Recent rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc have provided spectacular shows in the night sky.

In the 1980s, even larger launches were planned there for the NASA space shuttle program.

In 1985, the space shuttle Enterprise was brought to the site for fitting tests and photographs, but the launch date slipped months behind estimates.

Astronauts were in training for launch from Vandenberg when disaster struck.

The catastrophic failure of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, prompted a re-examining of engineering. The shuttle broke apart just 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members.

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Analysis showed parts for the Vandenberg shuttle facility had been recycled from previous Air Force programs such as the super-secret MOL, a high-priced spy program that proposed sending two astronauts into orbit to take photos. The first shuttle launch would have destroyed under-built components.

The shuttle program at Vandenberg was mothballed, but the SLC-6 site would later be used to launch Delta 4 rockets.

On May 15, 1984, Telegram-Tribune staff writer Bill Schlotter wrote during a more optimistic time for the program:

Vandenberg air base launch site attracts brass for christening

The time clock on the first West Coast launch of the space shuttle reached T minus 519 days and counting Monday with the dedication of a new launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

A crowd of about 200 military and civilian dignitaries applauded as Air Force Undersecretary Edward C. Aldridge Jr. crashed a bottle of California wine against the launching pad at the $3 billion shuttle complex.

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The space shuttle Enterprise was fitted and staged for photos at the SLC-6 (Space Launch Complex) at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Feb. 19, 1985, after being flown in on the back of a 747. Doug Parker Telegram-Tribune

The first launch is scheduled for Oct. 15, 1985.

The new complex at Vandenberg gives the U.S. two shuttle launching sites. The other, site of all previous shuttle liftoffs, is the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It also enables the Air Force to fire the shuttle into polar orbit.

Due to safety considerations, shuttle launches are all made over water. Shuttle missions launched from Florida can only travel a west to east orbital path after being fired eastward from Cape Canaveral. Flights from Vandenberg will follow a north to south polar orbit after being launched southward from the launching complex on Point Arguello.

“It is essential that we maintain the capability for polar launch,” Aldridge said Monday.

He also noted that the Vandenberg launching site would lessen the dependency on the Kennedy Space Center.

“It provides us a second launch complex so we’re not dependent on one (site) to get into space,” he said.

Vandenberg shuttle flights will carry top-secret military payloads into space. Aldridge said about four flights per year would be carried out at first.

“Then I think you’ll see the launch rate begin to climb,” he said.

Ultimate capacity of the site is 10 launches per year.

Plans call for the first three Vandenberg flights to land elsewhere and to then be transported back to the base piggyback atop a 747 plane. The fourth and subsequent flights will land on the base at a strip just 16 miles from the launching pad. The orbiter will then be carried by a special 96-wheel transporter over base highways back to the launch site for reconditioning.

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Air Force Undersecretary Edward C. Aldridge Jr. swings a bottle of California wine toward the Vandenberg Air Force Base shuttle launch pad during dedication in May 1984. Tony Hertz Telegram-Tribune

Representatives of the engineering branches of the Army, Navy and Air Force were all on hand to celebrate the shuttle complex’s dedication Monday.

Also on hand were representatives of many contractors employed in the five-year project.

As Aldridge smashed the bottle of christening wine, scores of red, white and blue balloons were released into a brisk 35 miles per hour wind from the north. Dignitaries watched the helium filled balloons lift off and whisk away southward along the flight path of future shuttle missions.

Many of those same dignitaries will be back 17 months hence to witness liftoff of another sort.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp
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