Hundreds of people lined the back roads of Lompoc on the morning of Jan. 19, watching the same point on the horizon.
Some sat in small groups of pop-up chairs on the grassy shoulder, while others leaned out of open car doors or perched atop their vehicles with binoculars.
Radios blared with the static of a live feed detailing a complicated process of emptying and filling tanks, systems checks and wind speeds.
Finally, a buzzy voice rang out, repeated again and again by the mass of radios.
As the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV heavy rocket soared over the hills and into the stratosphere, it scrawled a tiny, blazing pen stroke on the blue winter sky. The hundreds of gathered spectators murmured in awe.
“It’s an awesome thing to see a rocket flying into the sky,” said Loyd Champion of Port Hueneme. “The fire, the power.”
The launch in January — and the most recent one in June — drew hundreds of people to the rural area surrounding Vandenberg Air Force Base, all hoping to view the biggest spectacle the Central Coast has to offer.
The launches, especially those from high-profile space companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, have thrust the local base back into the collective imagination after a post-Space Race lull during which it labored in relative obscurity.
As we enter a new era of space exploration — from the United States’ highly-anticipated return to the moon to commercial space exploration and new missions that could lead to the eventual colonization of Mars — the final frontier is closer to humanity’s fingertips than it has been in decades.
And Vandenberg could play an integral part in all of that.
If its high-profile launches continue — paired with a potentially epochal push to have it house the new Space Command — Vandenberg Air Force Base seems poised at the precipice of a new Space Age.
“I think it is an exciting time for the Central Coast,” Col. Anthony Mastalir, commander of the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, told The Tribune in an interview Oct. 3. “I think there is no doubt when I look at how much venture capital investment is taking place — this is becoming something that I read about just about every day or every other day. That’s a lot of investment that is being put into commercial space.
“I think it is an exciting time for Vandenberg.”
Why is Vandenberg involved in space launches at all?
To understand why Vandenberg is so integral to today’s space operations requires a quick geography lesson.
“We sit on a prime piece of real estate,” said Col. Michael Hough, former commander of the Air Force base, in an interview with The Tribune in March before his retirement this summer.
The military installation is located on an 118,000-acre plot of land that sandwiches the city of Lompoc. The southwestern-most portion of the base juts into the Pacific Ocean, giving it a great location for polar orbit missions (ones that go around the Earth’s poles).
According to Hough, the base’s position allows it to launch rockets south over uninhabited ocean — safer than sending them literally above people’s heads, he said.
The base’s polar orbit possibilities are a key reason Vandenberg was once the planned home of the country’s second shuttle launch facility, a partner to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The shuttle launch complex was built but then scrapped after the Challenger exploded in 1986.
In more recent years, Vandenberg’s “prime” location has made it a convenient choice for a new breed of intrepid entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on the satellite boom.
SpaceX and United Launch Alliance missions boost fame
One such company was Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which began to launch its Falcon 9 rockets from Vandenberg in September 2013.
In total, the commercial space company has launched 15 times from the Central Coast base, according to its launch manifest, with the majority of those happening in 2017 and 2018.
This year, the company has launched from Vandenberg only twice, however, as it shifts focus to developing its first crewed missions. This has sparked rumors that SpaceX’s days at the local base are coming to a close.
For his part, Mastalir said he does not expect SpaceX will leave the Central Coast any time soon.
“I don’t see Space X disappearing from Vandenberg — at least that’s not what I’ve seen,” he said noting that the company will likely need to launch from Vandenberg as it fills out its next-generation internet satellite constellation, Starlink.
Another company that kept eyes on Vandenberg in the past decade was United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
The company, which leases two of Vandenberg’s available launch pads, has launched from the local base 39 times since 2006, when ULA was formed.
Launch activity peaked in 2009 when the company sent five rockets into orbit, but since then it has steadily launched two or three times per year.
That’s except for 2019, when United Launch Alliance has launched a rocket only once.
The company retired its Delta II rocket, which launched from Vandenberg’s SLC-2W (pronounced “Slick 2W”), in 2018, and its remaining two rockets — the Delta IV and Atlas V — have been launched off of the East Coast range three times this year.
‘Waxing and waning’ launch schedule
After a steady stream of high-profile launches kept Vandenberg top of mind for most of 2018 and early 2019, the once rigorous schedule has definitely lulled.
As of October, Vandenberg has no major launches planned for the rest of the year.
The next potential launch is listed as only “Sept. 2020” on SpaceArchive.info, a website that tracks launches out of the base (the website is not officially affiliated with Vandenberg Air Force Base).
A separate SpaceX launch originally expected in early 2020 also seems to be pushed off the local manifest, leaving the rocket launch schedule glaringly empty.
“There’s no reason for it, it just happened to be the timing and how it worked out,” Mastalir said of the lull.
That could change, however, as the schedule at Cape Canaveral backs up.
Mastalir noted that the schedule for the Eastern range out of Florida is becoming harder to get on to, leaving some opportunity for Vandenberg to come in and offer easier, quicker launches.
“I’ve talked to some folks that have said the launch industry kind of waxes and wanes a little bit here on the Western range,” Mastalir said. “I’m not saying that those days are over, what I’m saying is that what I see is an increased demand for space launch and it’s not going to be satisfied entirely by the Eastern range. The Western range is going to be part of that solution.”
That’s where more small commercial launches could come in to save the day.
“We are absolutely postured right now to do whatever we can to facilitate commercial,” Mastalir said. “ It’s in our national interest to do so.”
Firefly, Blue Origin on the horizon
As its launch schedule has slowed, Vandenberg officials have started courting smaller commercial space companies to start launching from the Central Coast.
One such company is newcomer Firefly Aerospace.
The aeronautics company, based out of Austin, Texas, currently leases SLC-2W, the former Delta II launchpad, at Vandenberg Air Force Base. It intends to launch its first rocket from the base by the end of the first quarter of 2020, according to media spokesman Eric Salwan.
Part of the company’s claim to fame is the low price per kilogram for payloads. A Firefly mission on its Alpha rocket costs $15 million, the lowest price per kilogram “for any small satellite launch vehicle in an advanced stage of development,” Salwan said.
It’s also not in competition with companies like SpaceX and ULA, which build larger rockets, because Firefly is focused on building smaller launch vehicles, he said.
According to Salwan, approximately 80% of Firefly customers have expressed an interest in polar orbit launches, making Vandenberg a great fit for the company.
“SLC-2W is a historic launch complex and has provided exceptional service to the USA,” Salwan wrote in an email to The Tribune. “Most recently, the Delta II launch vehicle operated from SLC-2W. Delta II uses the same propellants as Firefly Alpha, and repurposing this site for Firefly commercial small satellite launch is an exceptional opportunity to continue launches from this site.”
The company is in the early stages of building a mass production facility in Florida and has been tapped by NASA to deliver payloads to the moon — but that doesn’t mean it will be leaving Vandenberg any time soon.
“California has a great aerospace background and work force and will continue to play an important part in the future of space exploration,” Salwan wrote. “Firefly expects to launch from VAFB for decades to come.”
Meanwhile, a space company backed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is also narrowing in on a site at Vandenberg.
The rocket, named after astronaut John Glenn, is a “heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of carrying people and payloads routinely to Earth orbit and beyond,” according to Blue Origin’s website.
The New Glenn rocket is first expected to launch out of Cape Canaveral, though it would eventually also be able to launch out of Vandenberg, according to the website.
The company was founded by Bezos in 2000 as part of a push to provide private human access to space.
Blue Origin media representatives did not respond to requests for further comment on potential Vandenberg plans or a timeline for when it could select a site.
Vandenberg officials have also partnered with The Hourglass Project — a Central Coast economic initiative — to encourage more companies to consider launching from the local base.
“The opportunity for commercial space launch expansion at Vandenberg Air Force Base is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Hourglass Project CEO Melissa James told The Tribune. “The global space industry is currently $350 billion and projected to grow to $2.7 trillion in the next 30 years.
“The Hourglass Project is working with the state, the Air Force and cutting-edge private space companies to create a thriving spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force to take more cargo and people to space.”
Some of the initiative’s top goals are to encourage more investment in the base — both government and private — and drafting an integrated master plan for commercial space opportunities that could help drive it moving forward.
In the meantime, locals can expect to see more launches next year and beyond.
“Relative to 2019, 2020 will be a slight uptick — but it’s not where we are headed,” Mastalir said. “We’re still kind of coming. We’ll be steady state for a year and then we are going to see an increase in launches in some of the out years.”
Commercial companies aren’t the only force potentially pulling Vandenberg into a new era.
The base made a short list of six potential headquarters for the newly reformed Space Command, alongside four bases in Colorado and one in Alabama.
The headquarters would house Space Command, which could eventually morph into President Donald Trump’s more controversial proposed Space Force.
Space Command would essentially be in charge of space warfare by deploying resources from the current military branches, while the Space Force would create an entirely new military branch to handle operations in space.
“The reality is, space has become a warfighting domain — whether we like it or not,” Mastalir said. “Our adversaries are driving in that direction and we — the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. government — are responsible to protect the space assets upon which we and the American people rely on every day.”
“The American way of life is enabled by space,” he added.
Besides bragging rights, becoming the Space Command headquarters would translate into a huge boost to the local economy, which is why California lawmakers have avidly petitioned the Department of Defense for Vandenberg to secure the coveted spot.
Congressman Salud Carbajal, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris sent a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force in May urging the Lompoc Air Force base to be chosen as the central headquarters for the new combatant command.
Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who represents the 35th District, submitted his own letter in support in April.
Mastalir said he believed Vandenberg was singled out because of its unused potential.
“One of the things I always talk about when it comes to Vandenberg is there is a lot of opportunity here at this base,” he said. “We have a lot of room. We have 100,000 acres. So in terms of mission growth — which may mean more people, more jobs, more economic development — Vandenberg has a lot to offer. And the Air Force is keenly aware of that. That’s why you find Vandenberg is often in the discussion when it comes to these things.”
Though the decision could inject new life into the local base, Mastalir didn’t appear to be holding his breath for it.
“It’s always good to be on the list is what I always say,” Mastalir said with a shrug. “Better than being left off the list entirely.”
As of October, the Air Force had yet to make a decision on where the headquarters will be located.
In the meantime, the local base did secure an integral component of U.S. Space Command’s operations.
The Combined Forces Space Component Command, which was officially established at Vandenberg on Oct. 1, supports U.S. military operations in space with services like satellite communications, missile warning, nuclear detonation detection, environmental monitoring and other responsibilities.
“That’s a critically important mission,” Mastalir said, noting that he foresees even more changes on that front at Vandenberg “as U.S. Space Command kind of grows into its own in the coming years.”
‘The Range of the Future’
With both potential military and commercial space missions growing in the future, Mastalir has an eye on bringing the base into the future.
“One of my priorities here is what we call ‘Range of the Future’ and that’s really not just about commercial space,” he said. “That’s really about modernizing all of the launch infrastructure that we have here.”
Some of the changes that need to be made include enlarging the port for rocket retrieval, updating electrical resiliency and communication systems, repurposing existing launch pads and potentially even building new ones, Mastalir said.
It’ll also be about keeping up with the latest launch technology, and taking advantage of the new world of space exploration that is opening up.
What would this mean?
More rocket launches? Definitely. New cutting edge space exploration companies leasing spaces at the base? Check. Space tourists coming and going on their way to the moon and beyond? Maybe.
“As our technology improves and as we become more sophisticated — is there a day where we will be launching rockets the same way that United Airlines launches aircraft out of LAX? Yeah, could be,” Mastalir said. “And how many of those are going to be heading to Mars as part of colonization or just for vacation? It’s kind of fascinating when you think about where this could go. We just want to continue and evolve as that demand grows.”
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