Some of the most famous news footage in history has been filmed on these acres of cleared ranchland.
Trespassers will be shot.
The most expensive beachfront property in California is not up for sale. Instead, it’s sitting behind concrete-encased motion detectors and ten-foot fences tipped with razor wire.
Welcome to Vandenberg Air Force Base in north Santa Barbara county, where history is made behind locked doors. Vandenberg is the United States’ proving ground for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). It is the launch site for top secret defense satellites and currently home to the controversial National Missile Defense system, NMD.
National Missile Defense
The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) of the 1980s was known to media critics as “Star Wars.” The program appeared to have died shortly after the end of the Reagan administration, but President George W. Bush has given SDI its second wind in the form of the National Missile Defense system.
The advantage of the system is that it gives the United States a form of flexible response in dealing with smaller nuclear powers. No longer would the U.S. be forced to rely on its nuclear deterrent or the rhetoric of Mutually Assured Destruction.
If a smaller nuclear power were to launch a missile at the U.S., the system would give the government a way to respond other than causing the offending country to glow in the dark.
Four tests have been conducted with NMD. However, only two out of four have been successful and only “if you accept the unrealistic conditions of the tests, such as placing beacons on the warhead,” said Dr. Lawrence Badash, a history of science professor at UCSB who specializes in nuclear affairs.
The project’s critics include influential scientists from Berkeley, MIT, Cornell, UCLA, University of Maryland, University of Pennsylvania and all U.S. nuclear laboratories, along with former employees of Lockheed, the Rumsfeld Commission, and the Defense Science Board.
Others doubt that missiles pose a significant threat to the U.S.
A CIA official testified recently before Congress: “We project that in the coming years, U.S. territory is probably more likely to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction from non-missile delivery means … primarily because non-missile delivery means are less costly and more reliable and accurate.”
Currently the government is planning to spend $200 billion on NMD, a great deal of which will go to Vandenberg. Some herald the project as a strategic vision, while others see it as an expensive failure.
This kind of controversy isn’t new.
A New Beginning
Vandenberg began in 1941 as Camp Cooke, an army base where troops trained to use tanks during World War II.
Times change quickly. As the Cold War reached its apogee with the introduction of ICBMs, the United States turned its attention to missiles and satellites. The government soon realized it could keep tanks just about anywhere, but it had only a limited number of places to test missiles.
Vandenberg proved ideal for this task. The property was secluded and its position on the west coast allowed missiles and spy satellites to be launched into polar orbit — an orbit which overlooked the most strategic points in the Soviet Union.
And so north Santa Barbara County became California’s space coast. In June of 1957, Camp Cooke relinquished 64,047 of its 86,000 acres to the Air Force to form Cooke Air Force Base. By the end of 1958 the base had been rechristened Vandenberg Air Force Base. By 1960, the Air Force had acquired several south pacific islands for use in target practice.
In 1966 the U.S. government decided to launch manned spy missions from Vandenberg. The project would be called Manned Orbiting Laboratories . MOL, code-named “Dorian,” was a space station outfitted with surveillance equipment and complete with its own space capsule.
Air Force astronauts would use the space station to do experiments and take reconnaissance photographs for an extended period of time. When the mission was over, the astronauts would enter the capsule, detach from the station and descend to Earth.
The launch facility for MOL was built on a portion of Vandenberg known as Space Launch Complex-6 (SLC-6). Engineers fondly nicknamed the site Slick 6. It was to become one of the most infamous names in aerospace history.
The Legend of Slick 6
Over the next three years, the Air Force spent billions constructing the huge complex and employed thousands of personnel in the north county.
As Slick 6 began to take shape, so did other technological innovations. Spy satellites reached the point where they could match or outperform all of the objectives of a MOL mission for a fraction of the cost. The entire MOL facility was nearly complete when the Department of Defense announced the cancellation of Project Dorian on June 10, 1969. The facility at Slick 6 was abandoned.
The engineers left. The workers left. The money left.
The formerly booming economies of Santa Maria, Lompoc and Guadalupe dried out completely. North county nearly became a collection of space-age ghost towns. The rusting facilities at Slick 6 were abandoned for 10 years.
In 1972 an idea was conceived in the aerospace industry that would change the way the world thought about space travel. This marvel of technology was the space shuttle – an idea so far ahead of its time that it is still in use 30 years later with no viable plans to replace it.
When the decision was made to build a space shuttle in 1972, it was decided that the U.S. would have two shuttle launch sites. One of these sites was Cape Kennedy in Florida.
The other launch facility would be owned and operated by the Air Force and used for top-secret military payloads. It would be built at Vandenberg. In 1975, the Air Force convinced Congress that it could save $100 million by building the shuttle launch complex out of a large pre-existing launch facility. In 1979 construction began once again at Slick 6.
As work progressed, parts of the facility proved to be faulty or untenable. Failures in the design were so extreme that some engineers predicted the entire launch complex could explode on liftoff.
The facility turned out to be not only badly planned, but poorly constructed as well. Eight thousand deficient welds were found at the Slick. Pipes throughout the facility were cracked or cut. Critically important valves were faulty or clogged.
Poor construction is mainly attributed to lack of personnel and the brutal work hours enforced by the Air Force.
“They worked us into the ground,” said Marty Waldman, a project engineer. “There was a shortage of people for the work that needed to be done. … Funding was a bit short for manpower, so they had a lot of us working double shifts regularly with no end in sight. We never knew when to go to sleep, when to take a shower – anything. Nights, weekends, holidays: it was all the same.”
Stories emerged of construction workers working 16- and 18-hour days and sleeping on-site in their cars. Crime rates and divorce rates went up. So many stories of drug and alcohol abuse by workers were circulated that the FBI and the Air Force both launched investigations.
It is estimated by NASA that the chance of fatality on a shuttle mission from Cape Kennedy is one in 100 flights. Similar estimates for Vandenberg gave a one in five chance that the shuttle would explode on launch.
One worker testified before Congress that “there will be only one shuttle launch from Vandenberg because the whole launch pad will collapse when it’s launched.”
Despite extreme deficiencies in the launch facility and shoddy workmanship, the Vandenberg Public Affairs Office announced the completion of Slick 6 early in 1985. President Ronald Reagan followed this announcement with a similar statement to the public in October of the same year.
Mere months before the first scheduled shuttle launch from Vandenberg, the Challenger exploded over the Florida coastline. A state of shock gripped the nation and the Air Force used the aftermath of the tragedy as an excuse to quietly bury the shuttle program and hide a $1 billion repair bill.
Slick 6 was put on operational caretaker status, then minimal caretaker status and finally mothballed; each classification meaning it would take longer to restore the facility to working condition.
In 1989 the Vandenberg shuttle project was terminated. It had cost a total of $3 billion.
Slick 6 later became the site for another failed Air Force project and was then leased to Lockheed Aerospace, which suffered through three failed launch attempts before its first successful mission.
All these incidents have led to something of a base folklore.
In 1966, when the slick was being cleared for the MOL, project workers uncovered the remains of a Chumash burial ground. Members of the Native American tribe demanded that the sacred ground be studied and documented and the bones of the people re-interred at a different location.
The Air Force, adamant with its deadline, apparently looked the other way as workers continued construction without delay, said Roger Guillemette, a historian who has studied Vandenberg. The Chumash became angry and local legend has it that a leader of the tribe put a curse on the site that led to 30 years of doomed projects.
Not to be defeated, on September 24, 1999 – two years ago Monday – Lockheed fired the first successful launch from the Slick 6 facility. The Curse of Slick 6 appeared to be broken.
Rumors floated that Lockheed hired a Chumash priest to remove it.