Going Ballistic: From Cold War to Commercial Space
California’s Vandenberg Air Force base has sent nearly 2,000 missiles blasting skyward. Soon, it will also send up Elon Musk’s latest—and biggest—private space rocket.
JUST ANOTHER DAY AT THE BEACH, April 3, sunny and balmy, across from Amtrak’s Surf railroad station, a two-track whistle stop along the California shoreline. Campers and drivers in open jeeps and more than a few BMWs keep joining the gathering crowd, their kids running off toward the waves. Others pace the platform. Two hours to go, according to the red Amtrak schedule board, where the 4:12 is listed.
The station is a speck of California, just shy of Vandenberg Air Force Base. Amtrak runs right though the base, but today the 4:12 isn’t a train; it is the time scheduled for blastoff of a 217-foot rocket, a Delta IV Medium+, carrying a National Reconnaissance Office payload. At the moment it’s out of sight, encased in a far-off tower called Space Launch Complex-6, or “Slick Six.” Rough winds, sketchy weather, and something cranky in the upper-stage engine have caused a six-day delay. But today, the rocket is ready to fly, and a small but savvy crowd is huddling around the Surf station.
Plenty of iPhones are at the ready, but so are cameras with lenses like huge proboscises. One photographer has a hold of his telescopic lens with the trembling length of his left arm. “If the fog doesn’t roll in, you’ll see it,” says a guy who named his company, Tomcat Photography, after his favorite fighter plane. “It” is the big thrust of the Delta IV Medium+, lofting a spy satellite toward its classified destination.
Among the gawkers, a self-styled rocketeer from Orange County, who has brought along a hammock for beach repose and a fount of knowledge. He builds his own personal rockets, well above bottle level, and launches them from somewhere in Nevada, and has long listened in on NASA’s shuttle-ground chatter.
Today’s launch, the rocketeer suggests, is retrograde orbit—counter to the rotational pull of the planet. He gestures out to sea. “That’s why it’s going to tilt south,” he explains, tipping his palm. Satellites are customarily shot into orbit with the benefit of the Earth’s spin. That gives them an early advantage, helping to propel them to their later speed—somewhere around 17,500 miles an hour. It is a neat trick in advanced space aeronautics that United Launch Alliance—the joint venture between Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and the U.S. government to manage extraterrestrial rocketing—can gain enough toehold on outer space by going full bore against the good Earth’s west-east swing.
BACK IN 1956, this spot boasted only the abandoned Camp Cooke, last run by the U.S. Army during the Korean War, its acreage useless for further troop deployment. As Neil Sheehan relates the story in A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, General Bernard Schriever, the new missile chief for the Air Force, hungered for the land. But Eisenhower’s air secretary, Donald Quarles, didn’t want to spend $442 million to restructure the camp. And General Curtis LeMay, as head of the Strategic Air Command and its B-52 bombers, disdained all missilery. LeMay didn’t attend an August meeting on the future of the base; he sent a mere captain. General Schriever, absent himself, sent a major who was under strict orders to talk training, and only training. He was never to mention active launch.
But Major Roy Ferguson Jr. knew that from the jutting seaward point, you could shoot over the top of the world. You could put a recon satellite into polar orbit. For training only, you may as well stay stuck down in Cape Canaveral. So the major prepared not one but two sets of charts for his briefing with Air Force generals Nathan Twining, Tommy Power, Tommy White, and other air jockeys. As the major gave his training spiel, all eyes glazed over. Then he reached behind his charts and—disobeying orders—started talking war birds over the Pacific. The Tommys came to attention; White asked about the Atlas rocket: “Where does that go?”
“From the northern tier of the United States, sir,” Ferguson replied, “it will cover about anything you need covered.” Tommy White (four stars) called for “a map of the world, some string, and a grease pencil,” says Sheehan. White measured a scaled 5,500 nautical miles of string on the map, tied one end of the string to the grease pencil, set the other end smack on Camp Cooke, and drew the sweeping arc.
It took in all of China and most of the eastern Soviet Union. “He’s right,” White nodded. Then Tommy Power wanted to know: “What does that cost?” A lot less than building all those tracking stations in the Caribbean, Ferguson told the three-star. You could use the Navy’s shipboard instrumentation. General Twining nodded toward the 33-year-old major. “The boy’s right.”
Over the next half century, Vandenberg became the outermost American road to space—and a tightly secured site for assorted missilery. It’s hard to grasp down at sea level, but from back in the mountains, you can see, as one missileman explains, “once you launch from down there, you never have to cross another border.”
That’s how VAFB became the testing ground, as its primary mission, for our ICBMs. The missiles are flown in from Mountain-States silos—with their nuclear warheads sent to Los Alamos for testing by computer—and fired “live” as hardened casings, 4,200 miles across the Pacific into the Marshall Islands, at multimillions a throw.
This January, an unarmed Minuteman III had to be blown up midflight for “safety.” A February attempt made it successfully to “footprint”—its target area—into the Kwajalein lagoon, restoring the going odds on mutually assured destruction.
That February launch drew a small surge of 70 nuclear protesters at Vandenberg’s Lompoc gates, led emeritus by Dan Ellsberg, now 81. A band of 15 protesters—other antinuclear activists like David Krieger and the Franciscan priest Louis Vitale among them—trespassed over a painted green line and onto VAFB, and were promptly arrested. They face charges, and if it comes to more than a fine, there is the federal penitentiary (where Father Vitale has already done time) down Klein Boulevard, past artichoke fields bordering the base, tucked into grand green ridges.
NO PROTEST HERE TODAY. Gathered are officers from VAFB, out in their civies. Others are real civilians, who may secretly know where the payload is actually headed. In peaked caps, with frayed missilemen insignia are recent retirees. Some are engineers from Berkeley, or Texas, or even MIT, and have the greatest job they could ever want, tending the giant concrete launch pads along this formidable front.
“Over that hill,” a Berkeley engineer waves south, close behind him, “is the old Atlas pad.” Then he points toward a shadowy blockhouse—today’s launch pad, Slick Six. “That’s where the Delta 4-Heavy took off in January last year.” That was a larger configuration of today’s rocket, in fact the largest ever launched from VAFB. The engineer waves off to the nearer Slick Four, which is being rebuilt. He grows nostalgic. “I worked on improving Slick Six. We raised whole new stories on that rear tower. We thought we were going to get the shuttle to send off from over there, but the Challenger went down.” Once that was Vandenberg’s great ambition, but after mourning for the crew, NASA kept the shuttle down in Houston and at Canaveral.
So why is Slick Four being rebuilt?
Because Elon Musk, the PayPal entrepreneur, is out to prove, with his own millions, his Falcon 9 as a commercial venture. There are signs all over the complex with the “SPACEX” logo and its flying crossbar. Musk has paid for a license to launch from Vandenberg, and the best way to do that is on a pad that exists—like Slick Four. Musk has rocketed his Falcons from Cape Canaveral and Kwajalein. Three times, he failed, but on a fourth, from Kwaj, he got the craft into orbit. Last July, he announced plans to launch his Falcon Heavy—the world’s largest launch vehicle since the Saturn V moon rocket—from Vandenberg late this year. “He hired one of our Delta IV-crew,” the Texas retiree boasts. “A good man.”
OVER SIX DECADES—beyond the testing of Minutemen—the crew of the 30th Space Wing handled the heavy traffic in spy satellites. One reason there is no protest today is that nuclear peaceniks happen to favor gleaning whatever facts they can—any further daylight that can be brought to bear upon the opposing armies of the night, their mutual menace. Which is reminiscent of Eisenhower’s formal offer to the United Nations of “Open Skies,” based on what the U-2 overflights were discovering about Soviet missiles, with full knowledge that the Soviets were aware their skies were so intruded upon. But the capture of the pilot Francis Gary Powers—and Nikita Khrushchev’s haughty display in Paris of Powers’s U-2’s wreckage—ended that brief hope of transparency.
VAFB has always seemed the ideal proving ground for the Anti-Ballistic Missile defense system, with the whole Pacific for a shooting range to test-fire “a bullet to hit a bullet.” It has hosted the most experimental effort to collect data on intercept, down from Kodiak, Alaska, or across to Kwajalein.
Since 2001, Rick Lehner from DOD’s Missile Defense Agency claims, eight of the 14 hit-to-kill intercept tests from Vandenberg have succeeded. (Back in 1984, when the government showed a ballistic missile target getting blown away, live on camera, skeptics swore missile command pushed the button for the dodo bird to self-destruct.)
TWO TRAINS HAVE STOPPED at Surf station. Officially halted prior to launch time, engine confronts engine, their air brakes snorting and testy. “They used to stop the launches for the trains,” says Berkeley. “Now they halt the trains for the rockets.” Later, this will take a while to untangle. The northbound train is only an Amtrak commuter, but the southbound is one of those endless trailer-stacked freights. Passengers of the commuter have climbed down to watch, and a subdued quiet has descended.
A state guard in camouflage strides onto the platform, attended by a brawny tough in jeans and a white T-shirt. Stiffly pugnacious, the tough has a holster strapped on his right hip for a nine-millimeter automatic, “open carry.” Together, they drop off of the platform behind the Amtrak club car to patrol both tracks, waving strays off the ties. At some hidden demarcation between California and the military base, the pair meet up with three other camouflaged guards.
Suddenly, the Amtrak public-address systems starts broadcasting the countdown. The photographers fix their lenses; everybody else stands stock-still.
The train-status board squawks “Four … three … two … one!” It is 4:12, but the count goes on stubbornly: “One-plus … two-plus … three-plus … four-.”
There is no further “plus.” Nor any flash, only a harsh glow, then a great, grudging grumble.
The rocket flares at the bottom, lit like a lamp wick, then rises with a far-off jolt and disappears behind the scratchy low-lying cloud cover at sea level, then grandly reemerges white, whitening, whiter than white, and long, longer, faster, so fiery and beautiful and trim that it shines like an alabaster spearhead, and all anybody can do is look up, and up, up, up—up above Up.
The grumble grows into a distant roar, and stabbing flames hurtle on high in a bright, nova rush. Behind it, a twinned contrail spreads out immensely, roiling and smudged, but that diminishing speck keeps on climbing, soaring, going, going, then suddenly, utterly … gone.
Without a wink, and nobody can believe that something so earthbound ever grew that tall.