After a number of delays at Santa Barbara County’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, a 19-story Atlas V rocket is slated to take flight in the next few days, carrying a classified National Reconnaissance Office payload with it.

The launch, originally scheduled for late February, was postponed as a precautionary measure to avoid contact with any atmospheric debris remaining from the Feb. 20 incident when the United States shot down one of its own defunct satellites. According to the latest estimates, Vandenberg Air Force Base is planning to launch the Atlas V from its newly renovated launch pad this week.

It will be the first west coast launch of the 19-story Atlas V rocket.

Since the payload is classified and the launch site is a military base, Vandenberg spokesman Lt. Raymond Geoffroy said onlookers will not be allowed to tour the site. However, he said locals could catch a glimpse of the rocket in flight if the skies stay cloudless.

“On a clear night, folks as far south as Santa Barbara, Isla Vista will probably see this one,” Geoffroy said. “Atlas V is much larger and far more powerful than the Delta II rockets we usually launch out here.”

The Atlas V comes from a family of rockets that have carried payloads – weather, communications or planetary satellites – into space since the beginning of the space program. Despite increasingly intricate technology, Geoffroy said the basic build of such rockets have not changed for decades.

“Atlas V is a new versatile launch platform,” Geoffroy said. “The rocket itself consists of three main pieces. The first is the Common Core Booster, which provides the initial thrust to launch the rocket. The second part is the Centaur stage, which provides a second boost to the rocket after the CCB is depleted, acts as the ‘brains’ of the rocket and provides guidance to the vehicle throughout the launch.”

Julie Andrews, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company – which, with Boeing Integrated Defense System, is part of the United Launch Alliance that launches rockets from Vandenberg – said that ULA expects many more launches this year, using both Lockheed Atlas rockets and Boeing Delta rockets to complete often classified missions.

“This year, we have about 20 launches on the manifest and six to eight Atlas [rockets], and we expect in the future to be doing more depending on what happens with the markets,” Andrews said. “We also have a program called Delta II – it has been a real work horse, and right now [we have a] mission called ‘New Horizons’ which will be on its way to the planet Pluto. The one [Atlas V] launching out of Vandenberg is the classified payload – we can’t talk about that for the mission.”

According the Vandenberg’s Air Force Base Web site,, engineers made massive changes to the Space Launch Complex-3 starting in 2003 to accommodate the approximately 200-foot-tall Atlas V, which was expected to launch in 2005 but could not, due to issues caused by the rocket’s payload. Reported changes include a new 250-ton platform, a 20-foot depth increase to the exhaust duct and 30-foot expansion to the mobile service tower, rounding off to around $300 million in modifications over a two-year period.