Updated On: 1/15/2013 2:24:06 PM
Vandenberg Air Force Base: An Historical Overview
Vandenberg Air Force Base is located on the Central Coast of California, about 160 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It is operated by Air Force Space Command’s 30th Space Wing and is the only military installation in the United States from which government and commercial satellites are launched into polar orbit. It is also the only site from which Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles are launched toward the Kwajalein Atoll to verify weapon systems performance.
Started as an Army Camp
Vandenberg’s military service started in 1941 as an Army training center called Camp Cooke. It was built as part of America’s effort to strengthen its military defenses in preparation for a war that the federal government feared was coming in light of tragic events occurring in Europe and the Far East where Nazi Germany and its ally Japan were overrunning one country after another.
Between March and September 1941, the Army acquired some 86,000 acres of rural ranch lands in northern Santa Barbara County between the towns of Lompoc and Santa Maria. By 1942, additional land parcels were acquired that increased the size of the camp to between 92,000 and 94,000 acres. With its flat plateau, surrounding hills, numerous canyons, ocean access, moderate weather, and relative remoteness from populated areas, the Army was convinced it had found the ideal training location for its armored and infantry forces.
Construction of the Army camp began in mid-September 1941. Although still months away from completion, the Army activated the camp on Oct. 5, and named it Camp Cooke in honor of Maj. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke, a cavalry officer whose military career spanned almost half a century from his graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1827 to his retirement in 1873. Cooke saw considerable service on the frontier during the Indian wars, the Mexican War (1846-1848), and later the Civil War (1861-1865).
During World War II, the 5th, 6th, 11th, 13th and 20th Armored Divisions, the 86th and 97th Infantry Divisions, and the 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment trained at Cooke. Also at Cooke were an assortment of antiaircraft artillery, combat engineer, ordnance, and hospital units. More than 400 separate and distinct outfits passed through Camp Cooke.
As the war progressed, German and Italian prisoners of war were quartered at Cooke. Having surrendered to the Allies in 1943, many of the Italians volunteered to work for the U.S. Army which organized them into Italian Service Units. The Germans and the Italians were kept separate from each other in accordance with the Geneva Convention and worked on the post alongside Americans at various jobs including mechanical and civil engineering services, clerical positions, food service and the main laundry. To help alleviate the severe labor shortage in the commercial market created by wartime exigencies, the Germans also worked in the local communities at agricultural jobs.
A maximum security Branch Disciplinary Barracks was constructed on post property in 1946. Confined to the facility were Army and Navy military prisoners. When Camp Cooke closed in June 1946, personnel at the Disciplinary Barracks received the additional duty as caretakers for the entire installation. Practically the entire camp was then leased for grazing and some agriculture.
From August 1950 until it closed again for the final time in March 1953, Camp Cooke served as a training center for Army units slated for combat in Korea, and as a summer training base for many detached Reserve or National Guard outfits. The largest units stationed at Cooke were two National Guard infantry divisions, the 40th from California and the 44th from Illinois. On March 31, 1953, the camp was again closed.
In August 1959, the Army’s Branch Disciplinary Barracks transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Today it is known as the United States Penitentiary at Lompoc.
The Air Force Takes Over
With the advent of the missile age in the 1950s, an urgent need arose for an adequate training site that could also serve as America’s first combat-ready missile base. In January 1956, a select committee was formed that examined more than 200 potential sites before deciding upon the vacant Camp Cooke, essentially for the same characteristics the Army found desirable in 1941. Cooke’s coastal location would allow missiles to be launched into the Pacific Ocean without population over flights. Its geographic location also enabled satellites to be launched into polar orbit directly toward the South Pole without overflying any land mass until reaching Antarctica.
In September 1956, Air Force Secretary Donald Quarles accepted the committee’s recommendation. A few weeks later on Nov. 16, 1956, Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson directed the Army to transfer 64,000 acres of North Camp Cooke to the Air Force for use as a missile launch and training base. In June 1957, this portion of the camp was renamed Cooke Air Force Base, and was officially transferred to the Air Force.
The scene that met the first Airmen to the base was a collection of dilapidated World War II buildings amid weeds and brush growing everywhere. In late April 1957, parallel renovation and construction programs started. Over the next two years, missile launch and control facilities began to appear, as tons of concrete and steel transformed the landscape. Old buildings were renovated and new ones built, including Capehart military family housing. The work was already in progress when the Air Force hosted the official ground breaking ceremonies on May 9, 1957.
Five months later, on Oct. 4, 1957, Russia launched its Sputnik satellite into orbit, followed in November by Sputnik 2 carrying a dog into space. Launched by modified intercontinental ballistic missiles, these operations had clear military implications. The U.S. Air Force responded by pushing its missile program into high gear. It also transferred management responsibilities for Cooke AFB from Air Research and Development Command to an operational organization, the Strategic Air Command, on Jan. 1, 1958. Along with the transfer, SAC acquired most of the ARDC organizations on the base, and responsibility for attaining initial operational capability for the nascent U.S. missile force. Their mission also included training missile launch crews.
ARDC retained responsibility for the design and activation of launch and support facilities. It also retained research and development testing of ballistic missiles and space systems. These activities were carried out by a Field Office established immediately after the realignment, that also produced the seed for later organizations including the 6595th Aerospace Test Wing, the Western Test Range, the Space and Missile Test Center, and the Western Space and Missile Center. Space launches were to be conducted by ARDC and SAC with the vast majority of these operations being handled by ARDC. In 1961, ARDC was re-designated Air Force Systems Command. For the next 30 years, AFSC and SAC cultivated a close working relationship at Vandenberg.
On Oct. 4, 1958, Cooke AFB was renamed Vandenberg AFB in honor of the late General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the Air Force’s second Chief of Staff.
The transition from Army camp to missile base was fully realized on Dec. 16, 1958, when Vandenberg successfully launched its first missile, a Thor IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile). Vandenberg set another record on Feb. 28, 1959, when it launched the world’s first polar orbiting satellite, Discoverer I. The launch vehicle for this mission consisted of a Thor and Agena combination.
The Discoverer series of satellites provided other significant firsts for Vandenberg. In August 1960, the data capsule was ejected from Discoverer XIII in orbit and recovered from the Pacific Ocean to become the first man-made object ever retrieved from space. A week later, on Aug. 19, the descending capsule from Discoverer XIV was snared by an aircraft in flight for the first air recovery in history. Shrouded in a cover story of scientific research, Discoverer was actually the cover name for Corona, America’s first photo reconnaissance satellite program which continued until 1962.
The first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Atlas ICBM, flew from Vandenberg on Sept. 9, 1959. The following month, equipped with a nuclear warhead, the Atlas at Vandenberg became the first ICBM to be placed on alert in the United States. As a space booster, the Atlas was also configured with an Agena upper stage and carried many different types of satellites.
In 1961, the Titan I entered the inventory at Vandenberg AFB, but was soon replaced by the more advanced Titan II with storable propellants, all inertial guidance, and in-silo launch capability. Like its predecessor the Atlas ICBM, the Titan II also serves as a space booster.
The advent of solid-propellant gave the three-stage Minuteman ICBM a major advantage over earlier liquid propellant ICBMs. Minuteman I flight tests began at Vandenberg in September 1962.
Beginning in June 1983, the first Peacekeeper (MX) ICBM was launched from Vandenberg. In additional to having a longer range than earlier ICBMs, the Peacekeeper could carry up to ten reentry vehicles to separate targets.
Over the years, unmanned satellites of every description and purpose, including international satellites, were placed in orbit from Vandenberg by a widening variety of boosters. Among the parade of newer space boosters are the Titan IV (March 1991), Taurus (March 1994), Pegasus (April 1995), Delta II (February 1996), Atlas IIAS (December 1999), Minotaur (January 2000), Delta IV (June 2006) and Atlas V (March 2008).
The most ambitious Air Force endeavors at Vandenberg were the Manned Orbiting Laboratory and the Space Shuttle programs. The MOL vehicle consisted of a Titan III booster carrying a modified Gemini B capsule attached to a space laboratory. Construction work for MOL began at Space Launch Complex 6 on South Vandenberg in March 1966. President Richard Nixon canceled the estimated $3 billion program in June 1969, as a result of cost overruns, completion delays, emerging new technologies, and the expense of fighting the Vietnam War. SLC-6 remained closed for the next decade. Beginning in January 1979, it underwent an estimated $4 billion modification program in preparation for the Space Shuttle. A joint decision by the Air Force and NASA to consolidate Shuttle operations at Cape Canaveral in Florida, following the Challenger tragedy in 1986, resulted in the official termination of the Shuttle program at Vandenberg on Dec. 26, 1989.
Lockheed Martin modified SLC-6, and between 1995 and 1999 launched three commercial space satellites from the facility. The Boeing Company then replaced Lockheed Martin at SLC-6, and began retrofitting the site for its Delta IV vehicle. The first of these vehicles lifted off on June 27, 2006, when a Delta IV rocket successfully carried NROL-22, a classified satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, into space.
In May 1958, the Army transferred the southern portion of Camp Cooke to the U.S. Navy. Renamed the Naval Missile Facility at Point Arguello, it consisted of more than 19,800 acres. The Secretary of Defense authorized the transfer and directed the Navy to begin establishing a Pacific Missile Range with a headquarters one hundred miles south of Cooke at Point Mugu, and instrumentation sites along the California coast and at various islands down range in the Pacific Ocean. NMFPA would become a major launch head and range safety center for all missile and satellite launch operations conducted within the PMR. In agreements signed between the Navy and the Air Force, the Navy received command and control authority for virtually all launches conducted from Vandenberg. This relationship lasted less than seven years.
On Nov. 16, 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara ordered a restructuring of missile ranges and flight test facilities across the nation. Part of the force restructuring had the Navy transfer major sections of its Pacific Missile Range, including its entire Point Arguello installation, to the Air Force in two parts. The first transfer occurred on July 1, 1964. In the second part of the transfer, remote properties and mobile resources were handed over to Vandenberg on Feb. 1, 1965. These included sites at Pillar Point, California; Kokee Park, Hawaii; South Point, Hawaii; Canton, Midway, and Wake Islands in the mid-Pacific; Eniwetok and Bikini Atolls in the Marshall Islands; and six range instrumented ships (Huntsville, Longview, Range Tracker, Richfield, Sunnyvale, and Watertown). With the Navy’s missile program and range authorities essentially scaled back to the area around Point Mugu, the Air Force now assumed full responsibility for missile range safety at Vandenberg and over much of the Pacific Ocean. The Air Force renamed this geographical area the Air Force Western Test Range and established an organization by the same name. The designations remained until 1979 when it was shortened to the Western Test Range. Meanwhile, the fleet of ships which had increased to 11 by 1968, and was also supporting NASA’s manned space program at Cape Canaveral, Fla., was gradually phased out as land-based tracking and monitoring systems became more accurate and reliable. In January 1975, the last range ship, the USNS Sunnyvale, was mothballed. For similar reasons, most of the island instrumentation sites were also transferred to other agencies.
The final land acquisition at Vandenberg occurred on March 1, 1966, after the Air Force had announced plans to construct Space Launch Complex 6 for its Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. Flight safety corridors for the Titan III MOL vehicle reportedly extended south of Point Arguello and inland to an area known as Sudden Ranch. The Air Force sought to purchase this property, but when negotiations with the Sudden Estate Company failed to reach a compromise purchase price, the government turned to condemnation proceedings (under the power of eminent domain). By filing a Declaration of Taking with the federal court in Los Angeles, it obtained almost 15,000 acres of Sudden Ranch. Finalized on Dec. 20, 1968, the federal court established $9,002,500 as the purchase price for the land. The total amount paid to the company with interest was $9,842,700.
On Oct. 1, 1979, Air Force Systems Command established the Western Space and Missile Center at Vandenberg. As the launch arm of a research and development command, WSMC conducted R&D missile launches and various space launches. It also managed the Western Test Range. Meanwhile, the Strategic Air Command continued to operate the base through its 1st Strategic Aerospace Division. Beginning in 1990 and throughout the decade, a series of reorganizations occurred that altered these organizational structures. On July 31, 1st STRAD was re-designated the Strategic Missile Center. Two months later, on Oct. 1, 1990, most of WSMC was reassigned to Air Force Space Command. Other elements of the original WSMC involved in R&D launch programs remained with AFSC as separate entities at Vandenberg. They were later consolidated as Detachment 9, Space and Missile Systems Center, headquartered in Los Angeles, Calif.
The next large organizational change occurred on Jan. 15, 1991, when host base responsibilities for Vandenberg transferred from SAC to AFSPC’s WSMC. Also transferred to WSMC were all base support organizations. For the time being, the remaining SAC organizations at Vandenberg continued their mission of launching Peacekeeper and Minuteman III ICBMs as part of the Follow-on Test and Evaluation program. They also continued combat crew training.
On Sept. 1, 1991, SAC reactivated the 20th Air Force at Vandenberg as a replacement for the Strategic Missile Center. Less than a year later, on June 1, 1992, Air Combat Command replaced SAC, and picked up the 20th AF. On Oct. 1, 1993, the 20th AF relocated to F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., and was assigned to Air Force Space Command.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 19, 1991, WSMC was
re-designated the 30th Space Wing. In actuality, its Operations Group assumed the lineage and history of the 30th Bombardment Group (Heavy), and shared the number designation with its reporting unit, the former WSMC. The 30th Bombardment Group was a World War II combat outfit that flew bombing missions in the Pacific. It was inactivated in June 1946.
With the activation of Headquarters 14th Air Force at Vandenberg on July 1, 1993, the 30th Space Wing which had reported directly to HQ AFSPC was now reassigned to the numbered Air Force. In 2002, the 14th AF became the Air Force space operational component of United States Strategic Command. In 2007, the 14th AF added the parenthetical title "Air Forces Strategic" to its name.
Today, with an expanse of 99,099 acres, Vandenberg stands as the third largest U.S. Air Force base in the United States, after Eglin AFB in Florida, and Edwards AFB in California. As of June 2010, it had launched 1,900 orbital and ballistic missiles.
Text provided by Jeffrey Geiger, 30th Space Wing Historian. read more...