Photos from the Vault

The Central Coast's $25 million space port that'd never launch an astronaut

The 32-story launch tower built at Point Arguello for the MOL project was mothballed in 1969 was later named SLC-6. Vandenberg AFB would try to reuse the site as launch pad for the Space Shuttle but that effort was cancelled as well.
The 32-story launch tower built at Point Arguello for the MOL project was mothballed in 1969 was later named SLC-6. Vandenberg AFB would try to reuse the site as launch pad for the Space Shuttle but that effort was cancelled as well. Telegram-Tribune

The robots won.

Taxpayers are probably happy they did.

Even if $25 million was spent constructing the world’s second largest moveable building at a Vandenberg Air Force Base space port that would never launch an astronaut.

Declassified information on the top-secret competition between two high-priced spy programs is collected in an article by Dwayne A. Day in the June 23, 2014, edition of “The Space Review.”

HEXAGON was a satellite robot camera touted by the CIA able to discern objects about 2 feet wide on the ground.

MOL was the U.S. Air Force rival, manned by two astronauts, who could look through a viewfinder and snap when they saw something interesting.

It had better eyesight than a mole and could spot an object the size of a softball on the ground, but the downside was the field of view was tiny, like trying to spy through a soda straw.

It was also costly to sustain a two-man crew in orbit.

The CIA program was canceled first, and a senior MOL official was optimistic while testifying before a closed-door congressional hearing in June 1969.

According to the story, he was giving testimony when he was handed a note that President Richard Nixon had canceled MOL, too.

Both programs were replaced eventually with a robot satellite more similar to HEXAGON than MOL.

The result of the termination in Lompoc was a nosedive in the local economy as dozens of high-paying jobs supporting the program were gone.

Nixon later endorsed the space shuttle concept for manned spaceflight.

The shuttle was a second chance for Lompoc, and an attempt was made to recycle the launch facility into the West Coast base for the space shuttle; the pad was renamed SLC-6 (pronounced "slick six.") Reconstruction was well along when the shuttle Challenger exploded over Florida.

According to the FAS Space Policy Project website, the California engineering was re-examined, and it was found that SLC-6 had a hydrogen entrapment issue, and the control center was too close to the launch pad.

The Vandenberg shuttle program was scrapped.

The ill-fated Athena rocket project occupied the facility in the 1990s. Janene Scully wrote in the Lompoc Record in 2005 that the pad would be used for Delta rockets, where that program continues today.

On June 12, 1969, Telegram-Tribune reporter Dave Verbon wrote about when MOL was whacked:

Anyone need a $25 million space port?

Point Arguello is gaining a reputation as a military disaster site.

Nine Navy destroyers ran aground there in the 1920s, and two days ago the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) project at the point was scuttled by the Pentagon.

Looking at the launch complex under construction there, it’s hard to imagine it has no specific purpose now. But that is exactly what’s happened, according to Vandenberg Air Force Base spokesmen.

“I don’t know what it will be used for,” said Col. John Walker, looking sadly at the nearly complete $25 million launch complex.

“The cancellation came as a shock to everybody here,” he added needlessly.

Work on the project began in February 1967. Because the money for construction of the space launch site already has been allocated, Walker said, the complex will be completed probably by the end of September.

What will be done with the monstrous facility then, however, is a matter of guesswork. There aren’t many other uses for a space port.

Dominating the complex is a building that Walker says may be the largest in California — the 32-story launch tower.

Weighing 10 million pounds, it is the world’s second largest moveable building next to the Saturn launch complex at Cape Kennedy in Florida.

The tower can be lifted about an inch off the ground, said the colonel, and moved — with the aid of nine huge truck assemblies — 275 feet away from the actual launch site.

Inside the launch tower is a second smaller tower weighing 4 million pounds that has become known as the umbilical tower.

It would have been used for feeding fuel into the rocket as well as transporting the astronauts to their capsule at the top of the vehicle. That tower alone is 243 feet high.

The launch tower will be enclosed by nine weather doors that will weigh 140 tons each. In addition to the tower itself, all the necessary buildings that surround the site for orbital flights are also nearly complete.

There is a launch control center with concrete walls 22 inches thick.

There is a “ready building” to house all the technical people.

There is a water tank that holds 1.25 million gallons of water.

And of course there is an astronauts building that would have been used for preparing the men for their flights — which would have lasted up to 30 days if the program had not been canceled after an investment of $1.3 billion.

All of this and more will go into “caretaker status” when it is completed in September, the colonel said.

That is a gentle term for the fact the Air Force doesn’t know what it is going to do with the giant structures.

The colonel could only say that he was “confident some use would be found” for the complex.

There are 200 men employed in the construction of the site, but the project cancellation will not affect their contracts to finish the complex, Walker said.

The men were given the day off Wednesday — a kind of day of mourning.