- Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 6
Infobox Launch Pad
name = Space Launch Complex 6
caption =First launch of a
Boeing Delta IVMedium+ (4,2) from SLC-6 on June 27, 2006 (Official photo by Thom Baur for Boeing)
site = Vandenberg AFB
short = SLC-6
US Air Force
tlaunches = 6
pads = 1
inclination = 51° - 145°
status = Active
first = Athena-1,
15 August 1995
last = DMSP-5D3 F-17,
4 November 2006
Titan III Space Shuttle
Space Launch Complex-6 (SLC-6, nicknamed "Slick Six") at
Vandenberg Air Force Basein Californiawas a launch pad and support area designed for the launching of the Titan IIIin support of the cancelled Manned Orbiting Laboratoryand later for the Space Shuttle, for which it was never used, due to budget and political considerations.
Since polar orbits can allow full global coverage on a regular basis, they are often used for earth-mapping-, earth observation- and
reconnaissance satellites, as well as some weather satellites. However, polar orbits require more energy than a typical eastward launch, due to not benefiting from the earth's rotational speed. Achieving a polar orbit from a Florida launch site is possible, but because Kennedy Space Centerhas major population centers to both the north and south, polar orbit flights must fly a "dog leg" route, greatly reducing payload capacity due to the extra propellant required.
SLC-6, part of Vandenberg's "South Base," was originally part of the
Sudden Ranch, prior to its purchase by the U.S. Air Forcein the mid-1960s under the law of eminent domain. In addition to the ranch, the Point Arguello lighthousewas based there, which has since then been replaced by an off-shore LORANtracker. With the purchase of the base, the Air Force started construction of the SLC-6 facility on March 12, 1966to support launches of a modified Titan IIIfor the Manned Orbiting Laboratory(MOL). After significant construction work was completed, the MOL program was cancelled on June 10, 1969, so further work on SLC-6 stopped as the facility was placed in mothball status.
With plans of launching civilian and military equatorial space shuttle flights from
Kennedy Space Center(KSC) and military polar orbit flights from Vandenberg, NASAand the Air Force looked at different sites for launching the shuttle, finally deciding upon SLC-6, due to its dedicated manned spaceflight role that was leftover from the canceled MOL program.
In 1972, Vandenberg AFB was chosen as the western launch site for Air Force shuttle launches. Use of SLC-6 was approved in 1975, and re-construction of the former MOL launch facility occurred between January 1979 and July 1986 as SLC-6 was rebuilt to accommodate the space shuttle.
There were several reasons for using SLC-6:
*Florida shuttle launches to polar orbit would have entailed a large payload penalty;
*Florida shuttle launches to polar orbit would necessitate overflying
South Carolina, and the External Tank would be jettisoned and overfly Canadaand Russia, and
*Use of the existing and partially constructed
Titan IIIfacilities at SLC-6 would reduce building costs for the shuttle launch complex.
A Senate report summarized: "The Air Force originally justified the expenditure of such SLC-6 funding on the basis of a need to launch high-priority military payloads into polar orbits. After Defense Department officials testified that polar orbits could not be achieved by launching from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Congress initiated construction of... SLC-6."
There were significant layout differences between the shuttle launch complexes at KSC and SLC-6 at Vandenberg. KSC had the
Orbiter Processing Facility, Shuttle Runway facility, Mate-Demate Device(for loading the Orbiter on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft), the Vehicle Assembly Building, and Launch Complex 39. SLC-6 consolidated the VAB (stacking) and LC-39 (launching) functions, while a processing facility, located at North Base, handled the vehicle processing, along with providing a Mate-Demate Device, and a convert|13000|ft|m|abbr=on runway for Shuttle landings.
Over $4 billion were spent on the new space shuttle modifications. The original Mobile Service Tower (MST) was lowered in height and two new flame ducts were added for the shuttle's
Solid Rocket Boosters. Additional modifications or improvements included liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen storage tanks, a payload preparation room, payload changeout room, a new launch tower with escape system for the shuttle crewmembers, sound suppression system and water reclamation area and a Shuttle Assembly Building were added to the original complex.
Additionally, the existing convert|5500|ft|m|sing=on runway and overruns on the North Base flightline were lengthened to nearly three miles (15,000 ft) to accommodate end-of-mission landings. Turn-around servicing and refurbishing of the orbiter would be accomplished in the adjacent Orbiter Maintenance and Processing Facility (OMPF).
SLC-6 was declared operational during acceptance ceremonies held on
October 15, 1985. However, much additional work and testing was still required. The Space Shuttle "Enterprise" was used for a series of fit checks like those conducted at LC-39 in 1980.
The inaugural polar-orbit flight, designated
STS-62-A, and using "Discovery" with Shuttle veteran Robert Crippenas commander, was planned for October 15, 1986. However, the "Challenger" Disaster of January 28, 1986grounded the Shuttle fleet as efforts were concentrated on recovery and returning the program to flight after a two year hiatus.
July 31, 1986Secretary of the Air Force Edward C. Aldridge Jr., announced that Vandenberg's space shuttle program would be placed in "operational caretaker status," six months after the space shuttle Challengeraccident. A few months later, however, SLC-6 was placed in "minimum caretaker status" on February 20, 1987.
May 13, 1988, Secretary Aldridge then directed the Air Force to transfer space shuttle assets at Vandenberg to other organizations (specifically, the Kennedy Space Center) by September 30, 1989, the end of the fiscal year. The work was completed 10 days early on September 20, 1989when SLC-6 was placed in mothball status.
Several factors accounted for this:
* The "Challenger" disaster highlighted that sole dependency on the shuttle was unwise;
* SLC-6 would have generated more contaminated waste water than originally envisioned, necessitating an expensive treatment plant;
* Further study showed more sound suppression water would have been needed, requiring upgraded water supply facilities;
* Vehicle icing would have been more problematic than in Florida, and it was unclear how well SLC-6 facilities would handle that;
* Blast protection of nearby occupied buildings was unsatisfactory and more construction would have been required to safeguard them;
* Post-"Challenger", the more confined SLC-6 launch area raised concerns of entrapped gaseous hydrogen causing a fire or explosion;
* Large construction cost overruns, and
* Independent audits found significant construction quality problems which would have been expensive to fix.
The Air Force officially terminated the space shuttle program at Vandenberg on
December 26, 1989. The estimated cost for the failed program was $4 billion.
Just six months later on
July 6, 1990, Lockheed Space Operations Company (LSOC) was awarded an Air Force ground system contract to modify SLC-6 into a Titan IV/Centaur launch complex — essentially an uprated facility from the original MOL program that would have launched a Titan III vehicle. Site work was scheduled to begin in late-FY1992, and lead to an initial launch capability sometime in FY1996.
March 22, 1991, HQ USAF reversed itself again by announcing the termination of the Titan IV/Centaur program at SLC-6. The reasons given for the project being canceled was due to "insufficient Titan IV launch requirements from the West Coast to support the construction of a new launch pad.". The contract with LSOC was closed out several months later.
Since the shutdown of SLC-6 for the shuttle program, the U.S. Air Force reverted to flying military polar orbit satellites using the Titan 34D and later
Nevertheless, the utilization of SLC-6 was far from over. In the early 1990s, Lockheed began studies on the prospect of a new family of small launch vehicles for commercial and other users. Lockheed eventually approved the development of the
Lockheed Launch Vehicle(LLV) program in January 1993. After the merger of Lockheed with Martin Marietta, the renamed Lockheed MartinLaunch Vehicle (LMLV) eventually would take on the moniker of "Athena."
After another contract was issued in 1994 by the Air Force, modification work began on the existing SLC-6 shuttle launch mount for a small "milkstool" platform to be located over one of the two exhaust ducts originally intended for one of the large solid rocket boosters. The first operational launch from SLC-6 occurred on
August 15, 1995involving the Lockheed-Martin Launch Vehicle I (LMLV-1). Unfortunately, LMLV-1 was terminated in mid-flight after uncontrolled oscillations of the rocket were detected. This resulted in the loss of the vehicle and the payload. The cause of the mishap was later determined to be a guidance system failure coupled with overheating of the booster's first stage steering mechanism. The payload on board was GEMstar1, a small communications satellite manufactured by CTA, Inc. for the Volunteers in Technical Assistance(VITA), a non-profit organization.
After some hardware redesign and testing, a newly rechristened "Athena I" successfully launched NASA's Lewis satellite into orbit from SLC-6 on
August 22, 1997. Part of NASA's Small Spacecraft Technology Initiative(SSTI) and "Mission to Planet Earth" program, the $64.8 million satellite carried instruments to monitor pollution, the state of endangered-species habitats, soil resources, and the environmental impacts of energy pipelines. Designed to last three years, Lewis' thrusters misfired just four days after launch and went into a slow spin, its solar arrays unable to collect enough energy from the sun to charge its batteries. Within a month, it destroyed itself upon re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.
Another launch, on
September 24, 1999was successful as an " Ikonos" satellite operated by Space Imaging(later acquired by ORBIMAGEto form GeoEye) was successfully placed into a polar orbit using an Athena 2 booster.
However, with the advent of the
Delta IV rocketand Atlas Vlaunch vehicles in the late 1990s, The Boeing Company received a lease from the Air Force on September 1, 1999to modify SLC-6 once again to launch Boeing's Delta IV rocketfamily.
Some of the Shuttle-specific components at SLC-6 were removed, such as the mobile Payload Changeout Room, but the Assembly Building, Mobile Service Tower, Launch Tower, flame deflection trenches and sound suppression system and some other shuttle-oriented equipment were retained and made compatible for the new Delta IV rocket. The launch vehicle's
Common Booster Coreand associated flight hardware is transported from the Boeing factory in Decatur, Ala., to Vandenberg via the M/V "Delta Mariner" cargo vessel that docks just south of SLC-6 at the same location originally constructed for receiving and offloading space shuttle external tanks.
Boeing developed the Delta IV class of vehicles as its entrant in the Department of Defense's
Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle(EELV) program. The main objective of EELV is aimed at cutting launch costs and simplifying the process of getting satellites into space. Boeing's main competitor, Lockheed Martin, has a similar class of vehicles known as the Atlas Vthat made its West Coast debut in early March 2008, flying from the modified Space Launch Complex-3 East on South Base.
After sitting on the pad since late-2003 and enduring technical issues with both the booster and the payload, the first of the Delta IV launch vehicles to fly from SLC-6 successfully lifted off at 8:33 p.m. PDT on
June 27, 2006.
The Delta IV Medium+ (4,2) rocket lofted NROL-22, a classified satellite for the
National Reconnaissance Office, into orbit. The payload was successfully deployed approximately 54 minutes later.
"This first Delta IV launch from Vandenberg is an important achievement for Boeing and our NRO and Air Force customers," said Dan Collins, vice president of Boeing Launch Systems. "Today we successfully validated launching the Delta IV from SLC-6, providing the Air Force and the nation with the first operational West Coast launch site for the EELV program. With this launch, the Delta team has fulfilled all the EELV requirements outlined by the Air Force. We have a full family of launch vehicles, including a flight-proven, heavy-lift vehicle, a domestically produced first stage engine and now fully operational launch sites on both coasts."
According to a post-launch Boeing News press release, the mission was the first for the NRO aboard a Delta IV and the second aboard a Delta rocket. The first was the
GeoLITEmission in 2001 aboard a Delta II.
Another Delta IV Medium vehicle flew a mission for the Air Force
Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, orbiting DMSP-17, 4 November, 2006.
* [http://www.boeing.com/news/releases/2006/q2/060627b_nr.html "Boeing completes first Delta IV West Coast launch] - Official Boeing News press release, June 27, 2006
* [http://www.santamariatimes.com/articles/2006/06/28/news/news02.txt "Pioneering rocket blasts into space"] - Santa Maria Times, June 28, 2006
* [http://www.lompocrecord.com/articles/2006/06/28/news/news02.prt "Delta 4 soars into orbit"] - Lompoc Record, June 28, 2006
* [http://www.boeing.com/defense-space/space/delta/delta4/nro_l-22/index.html Boeing Media Kit for Delta IV Launch of NROL-22]
* [http://www.globalsecurity.org/space/facility/vafb-slc-6.htm GlobalSecurity.org Space Launch Complex 6]
* [http://www.vandenberg.af.mil/~swStaff/history/chronology.asp History/Chronology of Vandenberg AFB]
* [http://www.lockheedmartin.com/wms/findPage.do?dsp=fec&ci=14699&rsbci=21&fti=0&ti=0&sc=400 Lockheed Martin Space Systems]
* [http://www.boeing.com/companyoffices/gallery/images/space/delta_iv/delta_iv_vafb.htm Boeing Corporation's Delta IV Space Launch Complex Six photo gallery]
* [http://www.astronautix.com/sites/vannberg.htm Mark Wade's Encyclopedia Astronautica]
* [http://www.p2pays.org/ref/07/06009.htm Spotlight On: Vandenberg AFB] "Guarding the High Frontier" of Space for America, December 1999 - TI#20860
* [http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=645 LighthouseFriends.com - Point Arguello]
* [http://www.capcomespace.net/dossiers/espace_US/shuttle/vandenberg/SLC6%201979.htm Space Shuttle SLC-6 Chronology (in French)] - Capcomespace.net
* [http://www.ktb.net/~billmeco/Slc6a.html Vandenberg Space Shuttle Operations] - featuring space photography of [http://www.ktb.net/~billmeco/ William G. Hartenstein]
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