Lost On Base: A Day at Vandenberg


There are some days that work isn’t work, not because of what you do or who you work with … but where you work.  Today was one of those days.

My duties of late have mostly been performing electrostatic discharge (ESD) control audits.  This is basically ensuring that static build-up is dissipated so you don’t ruin electronics.  Usually that means work benches where sensitive components are evaluated or test equipment doing the same thing.  It’s important that any stage during a mission, there is exposure … so any stage is a risk, and any stage could need an audit … any stage … any … stage.

Today I did that job at two suppliers who are working on missions that are nearing launch; specifically GRACE-FO and InSight (will fill you in on those in a later post).  These suppliers are helping with the final flight testing of the missions — as in, everything is built, everything is proven to work, now all that needs to happen is to make all the beeps start beeping, fill the fuel tanks, and button the little buggers up.  GRACE-FO is so close that it has only a little over a month to launch — yet they think they can sneak in a little more testing, I guess.

Both of these suppliers are located on Vandenberg Air Force Base.  Some of you more astute Space Nerds would know of VAFB, but most people don’t … heck I didn’t know it exited until about 6 months ago (and now I am badged to visit 24/7).  While most space launches happen at the Kennedy Space Center / Cape Canaveral in Florida, there are challenges with launching there.  Namely, polar launches.  If you want to send a rocket into an orbit that goes over the poles (which many of your GPS or Communication Satellites may need from time to time), you can’t really launch them northbound out of Kennedy — you are basically sending a rocket directly over the entire East Coast population centers.  While VAFB is much closer to a much bigger population (namely LA, Orange County, etc) – due south out of VAFB is about 75 miles out to sea over the Pacific.

Historically, VAFB was a test bed for more of the intercontinental type rockets (you can guess what that was about in the 50s 60s 70s 80s).  It helped as a test-bed for some of the different boosters meant for smaller launches, like Atlas, Delta, and Titan.  In recent years, it has opened up to more commercial ventures, including main use by the United Launch Alliance, and of way more popular SpaceX – who like to launch from there and land a booster on a boat just off the coast.

The real piece of history was in a location I got to spend a fair bit of time at — namely SLC-6 (or ‘Slick-Six’).  It’s known not as much for what launched there, but what wasn’t launched there.  Remember, VAFB is desirable for polar launches, and when you have the opportunity to do launches with … let’s say a manned reusable vehicle .. you keep that option open.  So in the early 80’s VAFB and SLC-6 became a launch facility intended for the Space Shuttle.  At SLC-6, there is a shuttle assembly facility (which actually is also the launch pad, and would retract for launch), as well as all the build up facilities for any cargo.  The audit I did today actually was in the old shuttle cargo assembly facility.  They were pretty serious about using this location, going as far as selecting the first mission and building up the prep work for Discovery in Late 1986.  The Challenger tragedy ended that dream, funding was cut when questions were raised about the risk of a second launch site.  Still, much of that structure remains, and Delta boosters still launch from that pad.

VAFB actually was a bit of an odd duck to drive around.  Covering some 22 square miles, the base is right on the coast north of Santa Barbara at the terminus of the Santa Ynez mountains (that’s a wine country reference, by the way).  The base feels like a basin of sorts much like Los Angeles and Ventura feels.  With little tree coverage, heavy brush, and lots of open space only occasionally interrupted by a dull tan building covered in rust – it felt more like a northern airfield like I used to see in Alaska or Canada.   The brush mixed with the hills made driving deceptively hard – you can miss roads and turns easy, meaning you can get lost easy.  But I to quote a conversation I had yesterday at work:

Coworker:  Are you worried about getting lost?
Me:  Heck no.  I mean, I am getting lost, I know that.  But it’s going to be awesome to get lost there … so what’s there to worry about?

Tomorrow I go back to the grind of far less interesting places to visit (namely Colorado Springs … for barely an overnight).  But at least there was today.


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