Air University Review, September-October 1976

The Space Shuttle and 
Vandenberg Air Force Base

Major General R. C. Henry
Major Aubrey B. Sloan

In April 1971 the Shuttle Launch and Recovery Board, consisting of National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Department of Defense personnel, was established to review possible launch and recovery sites for the then recently approved National Space Transportation System. Their job was to evaluate proposed sites against stringent operational requirements; rank the sites; and present the findings to the NASA administrator. When the Board was formed, the Shuttle system consisted of a manned flyable booster and a manned orbiter. The booster-orbiter combination was to take off vertically like a rocket, but both stages were to land like airplanes. This capability implied site requirements quite different from those needed at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, up to that time. This new requirement prompted spokesmen in forty states to request the location of the launch and landing site within their state. These potential sites, when added to areas already identified by NASA, resulted in a total of some 150 contending locations.

In March 1972, NASA selected the ballistic, water-recoverable, solid-rocket-booster concept and fully defined the Shuttle vehicle configuration.

Potential Launch 
Site Evaluations

Because of the vast area required for impact of the unguided droppable booster and for possible emergency jettisoning of the very large hydrogen-oxygen tank, no suitable inland site could be found which would also provide more than just a few acceptable launch azimuths. Coastal sites afforded multiple azimuths as well as much greater flexibility to adapt to changes in the program. Thus, Board consideration was eventually limited to coastal sites. These sites were screened to consider booster impact zones, ground track of ascent sonic boom, landing field requirements, buffer zones to surrounding communities, and available launch azimuths.

West Coast areas except for Vandenberg were eliminated because of terrain limitations and because existing community development would impede or prevent necessary land acquisition. The East Coast north of Chesapeake Bay was eliminated because it was unlikely that the government could acquire sufficient land for the site. Sites in North and South Carolina offered clear azimuths, but mainland areas had well-established and growing resort communities and the adjacent islands were too small to accommodate the site.

Thus, on each coast only two existing sites survived extensive surveys, and both these sites had limitations:

a. Vandenberg could provide near polar and retrograde azimuths but could not provide easterly launches.
b. Kennedy Space Center could provide easterly azimuths but could not provide azimuths for polar or sun-synchronous orbits. Southerly headings would have booster impact on land. Northerly launches would cause the orbiter and external tank to overfly highly populated areas of the United States and Canada.

Investigation along the Gulf Coast found an area in Matagorda County, Texas, that had potential to accommodate much of the total program. This site apparently had cleared areas for booster impact and recovery, and the area seemed sufficiently free of existing development to warrant further investigation.

Screening, in the wake of booster selection, resulted in two final site options:

a. a single Gulf Coast area (Matagorda, Texas),
b. a dual site with East and West Coast installations at Kennedy Space Center and Vandenberg.

A cost analysis showed that to construct and equip a new site for Shuttle operations would require an investment in excess of $300 million more than the cost of achieving the same capability at the two existing launch sites, Kennedy and Vandenberg. The analysis also showed that the cost savings in operation of the single site versus that of the dual site did not overcome this significant differential in initial investment cost and added costs of phasing in the operations at a new site.

Locating a launch and landing operation of the dimensions of the Shuttle on an undeveloped geographical area such as Matagorda County, Texas, would have required significant additional federal funds to provide or improve community services such as water, sewage, schools, highways, hospitals, fire and police, post office, etc. Kennedy and Vandenberg jointly could satisfy the national launch requirements and already had the capability to meet all such foreseeable needs.

In more than ten years of operating experience, the environmental impact of launch programs at both Kennedy and Vandenberg was wholly acceptable. As the Shuttle program was within the limits of NASA and U.S. Air Force experience with Saturn and Titan vehicles, the Board presumed the experience would be directly applicable to the Shuttle program. Launch azimuths were available that would place ascent sonic booms over water, where their effects would be acceptable. Adequate buffer zones were available so that acoustic levels during launch would not exceed acceptable levels in surrounding communities.

In summary, the Board found no clear economic advantage in establishing a new single launch site or clear-cut mission or operational advantage over what existed in the two existing locations. Thus, in April 1972, Kennedy Space Center and Vandenberg Air Force Base were selected as the Shuttle launch and landing sites.

Use of Vandenberg Facilities

Following selection of Vandenberg AFB as the West Coast launch and landing site, studies were started to define the operating philosophy and facility requirements. Potential launch sites on north Vandenberg, the Bear Creek area, and south Vandenberg were investigated with emphasis on the old Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) facility, Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6).

In July 1974, a Special Study Task Team was formed at Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO) to define a minimum-cost operations concept for Vandenberg. Technical assistance to the study team was provided by Aerospace Corporation and the ground operations contractor, Martin Marietta Corporation. Representatives from NASA, the U.S. Navy, Air Force Logistics Command, Military Airlift Command, and Space and Missile Test Center also assisted.

Technical, operational, environmental, and economic factors were evaluated for three siting options and four system concepts. Environmental considerations and cost comparisons eliminated north Vandenberg and the Bear Creek areas. The old MOL site (SLC-6) calculations showed that sound levels beyond the recommended levels could be contained entirely within Vandenberg boundaries. From an overall environmental impact point of view, SLC-6 was the best alternative. Cost analysis showed that use of SLC-6 would be cheaper by more than $100 million than the previous baseline concept of two all-new launch pads.

Edwards AFB, California, was investigated for possible use as the primary landing site instead of Vandenberg. The study team found that unacceptable environmental problems associated with orbiter abort return and lack of orbiter cross-range performance precluded the use of Edwards as a primary landing site.

The study team findings were presented to the DOD Space Transportation System (STS) Committee in November 1974 and to the Aeronautics and Astronautics Coordinating Board in January 1975. The SLC-6 option was approved and officially became the current baseline configuration.

Vandenberg operations concept

This baseline configuration groups all orbiter-related activities around the airfield at north Vandenberg and all booster-related activities around SLC-6. Briefly, the flow of the Space Shuttle elements is shown in Figure 1. All operations will begin at the runway with delivery of the orbiter via 747 at the Mate/Demate Facility (MDF) or at end-of-mission (EOM) on the end of the runway. At EOM the orbiter will be towed to the Safing and Deservicing Facility (SDF) for safing of the ordnance systems and purging of the fuel systems. The orbiter will then be towed to the Orbiter Maintenance and Checkout Facility (OMCF) for payload removal and scheduled and unscheduled maintenance. After refurbishment, the orbiter will be loaded on a transporter and moved to the launch pad, a distance of about fifteen miles.

Figure 1. Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Shuttle System Ground Flow

Solid rocket booster (SRB) segments will arrive by rail, be stored, and subsequently moved to the launch pad for assembly. The external tanks will arrive by NASA barge at Port Hueneme, be transshipped to Vandenberg, stored, and checked out prior to movement to the launch pad. The Space Shuttle vehicle will be built up on the launch pad; SRBís first, then the external tank, and finally the orbiter. Payloads will be checked out in the Payload Changeout Room (PCR) and then installed into the orbiter cargo bay.

Recovered SRBís will be brought back to Port Hueneme for washdown and then shipped to Vandenberg for disassembly and refurbishment. The solid segments will be returned to the manufacturer for refurbishment.

The siting map, Figure 2, shows the location of the various facilities on Vandenberg. The map indicates the proposed siting of a second shuttle launch pad, should the need develop, about 1Ĺ miles south of SLC-6. Not shown are the solid rocket booster recovery facilities and temporary external tank storage facilities at Port Hueneme.

Figure 2. Vandenberg Air Force Base Space Shuttle System Siting

Current Air Force planning programs the start of construction for early 1979, with expansion of the airfield and modification of the SLC-6. Scheduling of construction has been adjusted where possible to make maximum use of NASA experience. For instance, NASA will complete approach and landing tests at Edwards AFB before runway construction is begun at Vandenberg; thus, we can use NASA data in the runway design. Orbital night testing from Kennedy Space Center will begin about the time we start construction on SLC-6; thus, we can reflect operational launch data in our launch pad construction before we are too far along. Finally, more than forty launches will have taken place from KSC before our first launch in December 1982, affording us some 2Ĺ years of operational experience to draw on.

environmental considerations

In late 1974, five environmental studies were started in order to inventory the Vandenberg area qualitatively and quantitatively and provide a source of baseline environmental data from which a comprehensive environmental statement could be prepared. Subjects covered included archaeology, marine biology, meteorology, paleontology, and terrestrial ecology. In late 1975 a sixth socioeconomic study was added. The proposed construction activity will be assessed against the comprehensive environmental baseline data and documented in an environmental statement to be published in early 1977.

socioeconomic impact

Construction and activation of the STS facilities at Vandenberg will require a modest-size labor force. Detailed information on the socioeconomic structure of communities near Vandenberg is being compiled and analyzed to determine effects of this labor force and its implications (e.g., the so-called "multiplier effect"), both beneficial and adverse. Results of this study will be available later this year. We can, however, at this time make some generalized comments.

Existing space programs and their immediate follow-on programs will continue at Vandenberg at levels not too different from those at present until the Space Shuttle is phased into operation in early 1983. It seems reasonable to project base employment at or near present levels through mid-1982, and that base employment will increase during the transition period when space programs using expendable booster systems are phased out and their facilities deactivated as the Space Shuttle system is phased in. Following the transition period, total base employment should remain as it is now or show a modest growth.

Construction planned to begin in 1979 will peak in 1980-81 and taper off to completion by mid-1982. Construction personnel will peak at about 600 people over a three-year period beginning in mid-1979. It can be anticipated that most of the skilled construction personnel will be drawn from the southern California area with little permanent relocation to the Vandenberg locale.

In summary, we are striving to prepare a minimum cost installation that considers not only mission performance requirements but also environmental implications. This facility at Vandenberg AFB will enable the Shuttle, with its greater flexibility, versatility, and payload capability, to lower the cost of space operations substantially and thus enable this nation to accomplish missions that otherwise might be unduly delayed or even unattainable.

Space and Missile Systems Organization


AF-SAMSO-TR-74-234, DOD/STS Ground Operations Study--Recommended Concept, Siting Arrangement and Acquisition Plan, SAMSO, Reusable Launch Vehicle, System Program Office, October 1974.

Holder, William G. "The Many Faces of the Space Shuttle," Air University Review, July-August 1973.

Roig, Raphael O., and Fabrick, Martin N., "Environmental Challenges in the Space Transportation System," The Military Engineer, November-December 1975.

Space Shuttle Launch and Recovery Site Review Board, NASA, Washington, D.C., 10 April 1972.

STS Committee Report, Special Study Task Team, STS Facilities, Ground Operations, and Logistics. SAMSO, Reusable Launch Vehicles System Program Office, 22 November 1974.

"USAF Launch/Recovery Plan Set," Aviation Week and Space Technology, June 30, 1975, pp. 32-36.

"Vandenberg Air Force Base--The West Coast Space Shuttle Launch Site," Speech by Major General R. C. Henry, Vice Commander, SAMSO, to the Air Force Association Dinner Meeting, Alisal Ranch, Solvang, California, 19 March 1976.



Major General Richard C. Henry (USMA; M. S., University of Michigan) is Vice Commander of the Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO), Los Angeles Air Force Station, California. After graduation from West Point, he completed pilot training and was assigned to Strategic Air Command as a B-50 crew member. He has since spent ten years with SAC, seven with Tactical Air Command, four with NASA, and the remainder in various staff assignments. He is a command pilot with more than 4000 hours, including 207 combat missions in the F-4 in Southeast Asia. His experience with manned aircraft, manned and unmanned spacecraft, and ballistic missiles gives him singular qualification for his post at SAMSO, which he assumed in August 1974. General Henry is a graduate of the National War College.

Major Aubrey B. Sloan (M. S., University of Southern California) is the Space Shuttle Facility Requirements Manager and Unit Environmental Coordinator, Space Transportation System Program Office, Space and Missile Systems Organization. He previously served as Chief, National Range Plans Section, DCS/Operations, Hq Air Force Systems Command, and Range Control Officer, Hq Air Force Eastern Test Range. Major Sloan is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.



The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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