Everybody identifies Kennedy Space Center and Johnson Space Center as the epicenters of America’s now defunct Space Shuttle Program. What most people don’t know is that the Shuttle almost had a second home at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the south central coast of California.
For the last quarter of the 20th Century, launch pads 39A and 39B, the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, the sprawling Shuttle Landing Facility, the iconic Launch Control Center, the Orbiter Processing Facility and the Crawler Transporters were all icons of Kennedy Space Center.
Set among the lush backdrop of the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, on the central east coast of Florida, like the massive Apollo rockets that came before it and took man to the moon, this sprawling combination of infrastructure would be the operational home of America’s Space Shuttle Program — at least, NASA’s side of it.
While the Shuttle program was still getting off the ground (pun very much intended!), a miniaturized version of KSC’s Launch Complex 39 was being quietly built at Vandenberg AFB. Compared to the long distances and flat topography that separated critical and in some cases volatile infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Vandenberg’s compact Space Launch Complex Number 6 looked more like an elaborate Hollywood set of some evil villain’s secret space project, not another Space Shuttle launch facility.
Looking at pictures of the facility today conjures images of Moonraker. But it was here, at SLC-6, that the Air Force was planning on launching dozens of Shuttle missions, lofting and servicing everything from spy satellites to exotic “Star Wars” weapons platforms into space.
The Pentagon, along with their NASA partners, had bet heavily on the idea of a reusable ‘space plane’ for their orbital needs. High hopes were placed on the Shuttle’s ability to deliver reliable and constant access into low-earth orbit. Sadly, these hopes would prove hollow as the luster of the idea of a true Space Shuttle collided with the gritty realities of the real Space Shuttle’s actual design and the limits of its 1970’s era technology.
In summary, the U.S. Air Force alternative launch facility would largely support the ‘dark arm’ of the Shuttle program, one based around shadowy military payloads, not white-world science and discovery. Kennedy Space Center could also support these types of mission to a certain degree, although crucial polar orbit flights that were preferred for spy satellites were out of the question if they originated from KSC.
Such a flight path would send the Shuttle over populated areas during launch, traveling over an area ranging from South Carolina to the Great Lakes. The Shuttle’s boosters would drop somewhere near Brunswick, Georgia, and its main tank would end up whipping around the globe over Russia and China, and ending up in the Indian Ocean... Hopefully.
All this, as well as payload limiting issues, precluded Kennedy Space Center as a launch site for polar orbit flights. On the other hand, Vandenberg AFB’s locale had no such limitations, with the Shuttle being able to launch on a southwesterly direction over the Pacific on its way to polar orbit without any reservations about public safety and with little negative impact on the Shuttle’s potential payload for such a flight profile.
Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex Six (SLC-6) was originally designed and built at a very high coast (some say $3B) as the launch pad for Titan II rockets that would support the 1960s equally as Bond-esque ”Manned Orbiting Laboratory.” Basically, this concept was a spy satellite-like space station that would be manually operated by astronauts for extended periods of time. The program was cancelled in 1969 as unmanned satellites could get the job done at a fraction of the cost and without the risk to human life. Looking back, this was an eerie foreshadowing of things to come for SLC-6’s next tenant.
A half decade or so later, the Shuttle Program was being developed at a rapid pace and the military wanted to take advantage of this new technology. In 1974, the then-defunct Space Launch Complex Six (nicknamed “Slick Six″) was reborn into the military Space Shuttle’s new west-coast home. Construction at the site began in 1979 and was mostly completed by 1985, with the Defense Department going so far as having the aerodynamic test Orbiter, the Enterprise, mocked up on the pad complete with its external tank tank and boosters. This was done to validate the pad’s proper fitment for Shuttle Launch System. This event also offered many of the pictures you see in this article.
Once the Enterprise arrived, the shuttle stack was assembled right on the pad, just as it would be during a real pre-launch evolution. This was far different than doing the complex and somewhat dangerous task at a dedicated Vehicle Assembly Building, like the one that sits some three and a half miles away from the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center.
During normal operations, SLC-6 would have had its orbiter delivered via roadway from a processing facility built 16 miles to the north, near Vandenberg AFB’s main runway. The Shuttle’s main fuel tank would have been delivered by barge from Louisiana and its boosters would be delivered in sections by train. Upon splash down, recovery of the Shuttle’s spent boosters and fuel tank would managed by Naval Surface Warfare Center Hueneme in Oxnard, California.
The whole setup was eerily compact for those who had brought the Space Shuttle to life at Kennedy during the half decade prior, and because of the secretive payloads that would be launched out of SLC-6, the whole operation had a high-security military twist to it. The safety of distance that was omni-present at Kennedy Launch Complex 39 was all but erased at SLC-6. Even the launch team and control was going to be located right at the launch complex in a fortified control center just 1,200 feet from the pad!
The small size of the facility was especially troubling considering the amount of damage a shuttle stack could do during a catastrophic failure on the launch pad or during assembly, an event that has been commonly described as analogous to a nuclear explosion. How accurate this description is remains unclear, but there is no doubt that the shuttle stack is a dangerous thing when sitting on the pad ‘cocked and locked.” Even when unfueled, the Shuttle’s Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) are 150 foot tall tubes packed with highly explosive material that has no ‘off switch’ once they are ignited.
After fitment checks were complete, the first flight of a USAF controlled Shuttle mission from SLC-6, dubbed officially STS-62-A, was slated to be made by Discovery — which was to be the USAF’s dedicated Orbiter — on October 15th, 1986. The launch would put the Orbiter into polar orbit where its crew would deploy the highly classified Teal Ruby experimental surveillance craft and operate a package of classified sensors that were to be installed in Discovery’s expansive payload bay.
Then, on January 28th 1986, Challenger blew up shortly after launch, grounding the already delayed and far over-budget Space Shuttle Program indefinitely. This left the Air Force and the Defense Department to re-think their planned reliance on the costly and seemingly unreliable Shuttle for heaving critical and very expensive spy and communications satellites into orbit. The truth is that the Shuttle’s capability to provide anywhere near the number of flights that the program had promised was largely in question long before the loss of Challenger. With all this in mind, the decision was made to put SLC-6 on caretaker status and by 1989 the Pentagon’s Shuttle Program was officially shuttered.
In the end, 11 Shuttle flights did carry classified payloads into orbit for the military from 1982 to 1992, albeit none reached polar orbit as all were launched form KSC.
The fact that the Shuttle never used SLC-6 may have been a good thing in retrospect. There were numerous integration issues and unsolved problems with the site during its construction, and it seemed like as soon as one issue was solved another would pop up. Acoustic suppression was one of these problems that first reared its head when Columbia was launched from KSC in 1981, marking the Shuttle’s first flight.
During Columbia’s launch, the acoustic waves that bounced back off the pad from the Shuttle’s main engines and its solid rocket boosters were so powerful that they could have caused the stack to rip itself apart, killing all onboard and destroying the Shuttle and its surrounding infrastructure in the process.
An elaborate water acoustic suppression system was added to Kennedy’s 39A and 39B launch pads after that inaugural flight in an attempt to deaden the damaging sound waves. Although SLC-6 was built with a water acoustic suppression system, it was a totally different and a much more modular design than KSC’s. This system would have only been validated during an actual Shuttle launch and there were concerns that there was not enough water onhand or enough storage for the contaminated waste water after the launch.
Nearby cliffs could have also bounced shock waves back at SLC-6 during launch, which could have caused damage to buildings and the shuttle itself, or even worse. Weather was also an issue, with high winds and cold temperatures, along with dense fog, being a regular issue at Vandenberg AFB. As such, the rolling shed-like buildings that covered the launch pad could be rolled into place around the shuttle stack, but these were austere structures and paled in comparison to the well-built and climate controlled interior of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center.
By the mid 1980s, the potential hazard of trapped liquid hydrogen during launch also became a huge issue with SLC-6s compact design and its reused exhaust ducts. It was feared that ambient hydrogen could ignite a fire below the Shuttle during launch, causing an explosion that would blow the Shuttle’s tail apart as it was lifting off the pad or even after an emergency engine shutdown.
The Shuttle’s acoustic and hydrogen abatement issues, along with the danger from the raw heat and blast of the Shuttle’s engines and SRBs during launch to the nearby structures, could have all ended up being non-factors. Still, just as mentioned earlier, there is no denying that SLC-6’s launch pad design and the Shuttle’s close proximity to its service structures and critical infrastructure, could have led to massive disaster if the there was a catastrophic accident during assembly or launch. Additionally, the shaking and concussion from launches may have demanded heavy maintenance to the facility after every launch, with nearby delicate computer systems being a major concern.
After the cancellation of the Defense Department’s arm of the Shuttle Program, SLC-6 was used by multiple defense contractors with varying results (see a full launch list here). By the early 2000s, a legend that the complex was badly cursed had grown to massive proportions, as so many billions of dollars had been poured into the installation, under the guise of a whole slew of programs, with very little to show for it in the end.
Finally, in the mid 2000s, Boeing took over the facility and re-utilized much of the Shuttle’s infrastructure for their Delta IV rocket program. The first Delta IV Medium rocket was triumphantly launched from the long beleaguered complex in 2006. Since then, the once doomed SLC-6 has performed extremely well launching large payloads into space, most of which contain America’s most high-tech and secretive space-based spying technologies. This is somewhat of an ironic reprieve for the site as it had unsuccessfully been envisioned as facilitating just that mission for close to half a century.
Photos via USAF and NASA
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.