NASA canceled the scheduled launch of a Taurus XL rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base yesterday after experiencing technical difficulties during the initial stages of blastoff.
The failed launch was intended to carry NASA’s Glory satellite in addition to a secondary payload of small educational satellites for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Air Force base officials, the launch is postponed until Friday at the earliest, due to a computer malfunction.
Located about 60 miles north of Goleta, the Air Force installation is capable of launching unmanned government and commercial satellites as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles. Vandenberg AFB Community Relations Assistant Jennifer Green said the base is also the only military location in the country that can launch satellites into a polar-orbital trajectory. In fact, the same Taurus XL rocket that failed to blast off from the base yesterday has completed eight missions into space since 1994, delivering 13 satellites in the process.
“Polar orbiting satellites [are] great for observation and measuring weather statistics,” Green said. “For example, we launched Google Earth.”
The federal government opened the Vandenberg site as an army training camp in 1941 to prepare the U.S. for conflict during World War II. Until 1957, when the Air Force Space Command’s 30th Space Wing began renovating the base for its use, the site saw a variety of Army uses — including holding German and Italian prisoners of war — under the name of Camp Cooke.
On Feb. 28, 1959, about two years after the Air Force installed itself in the coastal location — allowing for missile launches over the Pacific that don’t cross densely populated civilian areas — Vandenberg AFB launched the world’s first polar orbiting satellite, Discoverer I. The base launched its first ICBM several months later in September, and became the first base in the United States to contain an ICBM equipped with a nuclear warhead in October that year.
The base has since stopped carrying nuclear warheads, although Green said the military conducts test launches of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles every year to ensure the guidance systems are functioning correctly.
“We perform right around three to five tests of the Minuteman III system,” Green said. “We will take [the ICBMs] out of the Northern-tier states and test them for accuracy. What we will do is take the nuclear heads out of it and replace them with dummy warheads and launch them 4000 miles away to the Kwajalein Atoll. We do not [possess nuclear warheads] and that is one reason why the world is okay with these practice launches. There are 450 warheads up in the northern states of Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, but none are here.”
Although the ICBMS aren’t armed, Director of Programs and Operations at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Rick Wayman said his organization — a non-profit that promotes the elimination of nuclear weapons and the pursuit of global peace — protests the test launches at Vandenberg because they aid the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
“Basically, [the U.S.] can fire [a nuclear missile] within minutes of an order,” Wayman said. “That means they are underground in their silos in the Midwest and they can arrive in their destination, presumably on the other side of the world, within 30 minutes.”
Wayman said the “hair trigger” readiness of the U.S. nuclear inventory allows for the possibility of a cataclysmic nuclear accident.
“The reason we are concerned is because there have been a number of incidents in the past where there have been an error in the radar systems, whether it was a flock of geese or a weather balloon, that look like incoming missiles,” Wayman said. “If we do not have time to decide and we shoot our missiles just because someone else has fired at us, we will not have time to recall them.”