California Dreamin': Vandenberg AFB & the Space Shuttle
Updated: Jul 22
In 2020, more than 150,000 people flocked to Florida's Space Coast to watch the launch of SpaceX Demonstration Mission-2, the first crewed launch from American soil in nearly a decade. Over the past sixty years, millions of people from all over the world came to Florida, home of America's first manned launch center, to watch people soar into space. However, plans to launch astronauts from California date all the way back to the 1960s. Vandenberg Air Force Base (now Space Force Base) is home to Space Launch Complex-6 (SLC-6), the intended secondary launch site of the Space Shuttle.
Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex-6 (USAF)
SLC-6, pronounced "Slick Six", is part of Vandenberg's "South Base" and was purchased by the U.S. Air Force in the mid 1960s. Construction to support launches of modified Titan III rockets began on March 12, 1966. These launches would have been of Titan IIIC rockets and possibly the never-constructed Titan IIIM's. They were the planned launch vehicles of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program, a crewed military reconnaissance station. MOL was cancelled on June 10, 1969 after significant work on the complex had been done. Further work was stopped and the facility was mothballed.
A few years later during the early Space Shuttle program, NASA and the Air Force decided the vehicle would support military missions that operated in polar orbits. In 1972, they chose SLC-6 since it was already partially built to support crewed missions. It was ultimately approved in 1975. Two main differences between SLC-6 and Launch Complex 39 in Florida are their respective launch control centers and vehicle assembly buildings. SLC-6's launch control was surrounded by concrete and located only 1,200 feet (365.76 m) away from the launch pad in comparison to the 3 miles (4.8 km) separating LC-39A from its launch control center. Vandenberg did not use a crawler transporter to get its Shuttle out to the pad. Instead, a gantry would roll over to the launch pad on giant tracks and enclose the pad. Once the boosters were stacked and the orbiter was mated, it would roll away in preparation for launch.
A very different layout than LC-39 (USAF)
The original mobile service tower was lowered in height and two new flame ducts were added for the Shuttle's solid rocket boosters. Other additions included liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen storage tanks, a payload preparation room, a payload changeout room, a new launch tower with escape system, a sound suppression system and water reclamation area, and the Shuttle assembly building. Furthermore, the existing 5,500 foot (1,700 m) runway on the North Base flight line was lengthened to almost 3 miles, or 15,000 feet (5,100 m), to match the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center. An orbiter maintenance and processing facility was added to the end of the runway for servicing and refurbishment of the vehicle. SLC-6 was declared operational on October 15, 1985 even though more work and testing needed to be done. OV-101 Enterprise was mated with an external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters in boilerplate configuration and used for fit checks on the launch pad. The orbiter was also used to test LC-39A at KSC.
A western spaceport was needed for polar launches since it was deemed unwise to launch such missions from the east coast— Florida polar launches would have flown over populated areas of the southeastern U.S. The solid rocket boosters would make landfall in Brunswick, Georgia, and the external fuel tank would overfly not only Canada but Russia and possibly China. Furthermore, there was the possibility of needing to abort over the Soviet Union since the established transoceanic abort landing sites would be out of reach. It also made more financial sense to launch from SLC-6 since upgrading the partially constructed Titan III facilities were cheaper than constructing a brand new complex.
The inaugural flight from SLC-6 was planned to be STS-62A. Discovery and her crew of seven were scheduled to launch in March of 1986 and become the first manned polar orbital mission. According to mission specialist Jerry Ross's autobiography Spacewalker, although 62A was a military flight, most aspects of the mission were not classified. Its first primary objective was to deploy an experimental early warning satellite called Teal Ruby. The second was to conduct a series of observations using telescopes and instruments mounted in the payload bay. The infrared telescope was called Cirris. They would have collected data on infrared, ultraviolet, and visible light in regards to natural and induced phenomena in Earth's upper atmosphere. This information, along with data from Teal Ruby, was to be used in the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars", President Ronald Reagan's ballistic missile defense system. Discovery was planned to orbit at a 72° angle with respect to Earth's equator.
Artist's depiction of the never-flown Teal Ruby in orbit (USAF)
Up until this point, no NASA Shuttle mission had a "2" as the second digit. Starting in 1984 after STS-9 the prior December and up until the Challenger disaster, missions were designated 41, 51, or 61, followed by a letter. The first number stood for the year in which the mission was scheduled to launch. The second number represented the launch site, 1 being the Kennedy Space Center and 2 being Vandenberg. The letter was the order in which the mission would launch with respect to the other planned missions for the same year. However, not all letters were used— for the year 1984, only letters "B", "C", "D", and "G" were used. Although the origins of this numbering system are unknown, it might have to do with the agency's hesitancy towards using the number 13 as a result of the Apollo 13 near-disaster.
STS-62A was to be commanded by Bob Crippen, pilot of STS-1 and commander of STS-7, 41C, and 41G. His pilot was rookie Guy Gardner. The three mission specialists— Dale Gardner, Mike Mullane, and Jerry Ross— were also veterans. Then there were the two payload specialists. Payload specialist #2 was Brett Watterson, an astronaut for the Department of Defense (DoD). He was part of the Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program (MSE), an Air Force project that used military personnel to fly DoD Shuttle missions. However, NASA, particularly its astronauts, had a poor relationship with the MSEs. As an attempt to improve this, NASA and the DoD decided to fly Under Secretary of the Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office director Pete Aldridge. He became STS-62A's payload specialist #1. The crew started training in January 1986. Once the mission was cancelled, Crippen took on a managerial role at NASA's Headquarters in Washington D.C.. Guy Gardner, Mullane, and Ross flew a DoD mission, STS-27, in 1988. Dale Gardner and Watterson returned to their respective military services. Aldridge was soon promoted to Secretary of the Air Force and held Vandenberg's fate in his hands.
Crew of STS-62A (NASA)
(front l-r) Guy Gardner, Mullane, Ross, Dale Gardner; (back l-r) Aldridge, Crippen, Watterson
STS-62A was the only planned Vandenberg mission with a full crew by the time Californian Shuttle operations ceased. STS-62B would have flown DoD payload specialist Katherine Eileen Sparks and deployed the KH-12 reconnaissance satellite. It was scheduled to launch in late 1986 but turnaround time for Discovery, the only orbiter to launch from Vandenberg, would have taken longer than initially predicted since SLC-6's facilities were not as sophisticated as the ones at the Kennedy Space Center. If 62A had gone well, it was looking at an early 1987 launch at the soonest. STS-82B would have included the deployment of the Cosmic Background Explorer observatory, which was later launched on a Delta rocket in 1989.
After the Challenger disaster in January 1986, hopes to launch from Vandenberg in the next few years faded. More than two and a half years would pass before another Shuttle mission flew. Work on the complex was completed on September 20, 1989, and ten days later on September 30, Secretary Aldridge directed the Air Force to transfer its Shuttle assets from Vandenberg to the Kennedy Space Center. SLC-6 was placed in mothball status, just as it was twenty years prior. The Air Force officially terminated the Vandenberg extension of the Shuttle program on December 26. This was a loss of $4 billion.
South view of SLC-6 (USAF)
Since the cancellation of Shuttle operations, SLC-6 has been used to launch the Titan 34D, Titan IV, Athena I, Athena II, Delta IV, and Delta IV Heavy. As of April 2023, Space Launch Delta 30 is leasing the historic pad to SpaceX for Falcon rocket launches. The complex has sustained unmanned activities for more than twenty years and while some parts have changed, remnants of the mighty Space Shuttle program were recycled and renovated to support modern launches.
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Bergin, Chris. “STS-62A: The Polar Express.” NASASpaceFlight.com, 18 Dec. 2005, www.nasaspaceflight.com/2005/12/sts-62a-the-polar-express/.
Ray, Justin. “'Slick 6:' 30 Years after the Hopes of a West Coast Space Shuttle.” Spaceflight Now, 8 Feb. 2016, spaceflightnow.com/2016/02/08/astronaut-interview-30-years-after-the-hopes-of-a-west-coast-space-shuttle/.
Ross, Jerry L., and John Norberg. Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA's Record-Setting Frequent Flyer. Purdue University Press, 2017.
"California Dreamin'" written by John and Michelle Phillips, 1963, first performed by Barry McGuire