Book Review: Vandenberg Air Force Base

“Vandenberg Air Force Base” by Joseph T. Page, IIPrior to World War II, the sleepy rural part of the southern California coast between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo was best known as the location where, in September 1923, despite a lighthouse having been in operation at Arguello Point since 1901, the U.S. Navy suffered its worst peacetime disaster, when seven destroyers, travelling at 20 knots, ran aground at Honda Point, resulting in the loss of all seven ships and the deaths of 23 crewmembers. In the 1930s, following additional wrecks in the area, a lifeboat station was established in conjunction with the lighthouse.

During World War II, the Army acquired 92,000 acres (372 km²) in the area for a training base which was called Camp Cooke, after a cavalry general who served in the Civil War, in wars with Indian tribes, and in the Mexican-American War. The camp was used for training Army troops in a variety of weapons and in tank maneuvers. After the end of the war, the base was closed and placed on inactive status, but was re-opened after the outbreak of war in Korea to train tank crews. It was once again mothballed in 1953, and remained inactive until 1957, when 64,000 acres were transferred to the U.S. Air Force to establish a missile base on the West Coast, initially called Cooke Air Force Base, intended to train missile crews and also serve as the U.S.’s first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) site. On October 4th, 1958, the base was renamed Vandenberg Air Force Base in honour of the late General Hoyt Vandenberg, former Air Force Chief of Staff and Director of Central Intelligence.

On December 15, 1958, a Thor intermediate range ballistic missile was launched from the new base, the first of hundreds of launches which would follow and continue up to the present day. Starting in September 1959, three Atlas ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads were deployed on open launch pads at Vandenberg, the first U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles to go on alert. The Atlas missiles remained part of the U.S. nuclear force until their retirement in May 1964.

With the advent of Earth satellites, Vandenberg became a key part of the U.S. military and civil space infrastructure. Launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida are restricted to a corridor directed eastward over the Atlantic ocean. While this is fine for satellites bound for equatorial orbits, such as the geostationary orbits used by many communication satellites, a launch into polar orbit, preferred by military reconnaissance satellites and Earth resources satellites because it allows them to overfly and image locations anywhere on Earth, would result in the rockets used to launch them dropping spent stages on land, which would vex taxpayers to the north and hotheated Latin neighbours to the south.

Vandenberg Air Force Base, however, situated on a point extending from the California coast, had nothing to the south but open ocean all the way to Antarctica. Launching southward, satellites could be placed into polar or Sun synchronous orbits without disturbing anybody but the fishes. Vandenberg thus became the prime launch site for U.S. reconnaissance satellites which, in the early days when satellites were short-lived and returned film to the Earth, required a large number of launches. The Corona spy satellites alone accounted for 144 launches from Vandenberg between 1959 and 1972.

With plans in the 1970s to replace all U.S. expendable launchers with the Space Shuttle, facilities were built at Vandenberg (Space Launch Complex 6) to process and launch the Shuttle, using a very different architecture than was employed in Florida. The Shuttle stack would be assembled on the launch pad, protected by a movable building that would retract prior to launch. The launch control centre was located just 365 metres from the launch pad (as opposed to 4.8 km away at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida), so the plan in case of a catastrophic launch accident on the pad essentially seemed to be “hope that never happens”. In any case, after spending more than US$4 billion on the facilities, after the Challenger disaster in 1986, plans for Shuttle launches from Vandenberg were abandoned, and the facility was mothballed until being adapted, years later, to launch other rockets.

This book, part of the “Images of America” series, is a collection of photographs (all black and white) covering all aspects of the history of the site from before World War II to the present day. Introductory text for each chapter and detailed captions describe the items shown and their significance to the base’s history. The production quality is excellent, and I noted only one factual error in the text (the names of crew of Gemini 5). For a book of just 128 pages, the paperback is very expensive (US$22 at this writing). The Kindle edition is still pricey (US$13 list price), but may be read for free by Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Page, Joseph T., II. Vandenberg Air Force Base. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4671-3209-1.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Vandenberg Air Force Base

  1. Here’s the people who worked on Timation 1 at Vandenberg in 1967. Pete Wilhelm, who was a source for my book, is standing 3rd from right (wearing a tie). My Dad is standing 3rd from left. Matt Maloof, who did the first test of passive ranging on 10/16/64, is standing 2nd from right.

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