Inside a Place of Many Secrets

Enough about President Biden, former President Trump and Washington politics.

I need a break. Maybe you need a break too.

Let’s go somewhere else today.

How about the coast of California? And not some built-up, urban landscape of sprawl, either…

Nope. Unspoiled nature.

Well, almost unspoiled… You decide.

rocket base

This is a rocket base? Umm… yes. BWK photo.

Adding to the allure, this is a rocket base.

Interested? Let’s dig in…

Most secrets are hidden. They’re unspoken, locked away in a safe or buried in tunnels. But some secrets are too big to hide, so they’re right there in front of you.

Such is the case with Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB). It covers 100,000 acres along 44 miles of pristine, central California coastline. I visited the place a while back — pre-COVID, of course.

As I mentioned, Vandenberg is a rocket base (more on that in a moment). It could also be a “Surf Board Base” as the photo above indicates.

There’s plenty to know about Vandenberg, but most of what happens there is secret. It’s a highly restricted military installation.

It’s located where it is for a reason, too.

Vandenberg is the finest rocket real estate in California.

It’s on iconic California Highway 1, about 10 miles north of Lompoc, home of a federal prison. Road-wise, Vandenberg is about 75 miles northwest of Santa Barbara and about 170 miles from Los Angeles.

Still, the place is fairly remote unless you have a reason to go.

Map Showing Vandenberg



As California real estate goes (and as rocket real estate goes), Vandenberg has location, location and location.

That is, Vandenberg is on the southwest edge of the state, encompassing a long, empty stretch of beach along the Pacific Ocean. There’s nothing directly south of Vandenberg except salt water and seafloor, until one gets to Antarctica.

In that sense, Vandenberg is a good place to fuel-up rockets and launch them into southerly polar orbits. Spent rocket stages will drop into the ocean and not into someone’s back yard.

Vandenberg hosts many organizations concerned with access to space. Groups like the Air Force, Space Force, Navy, NASA, and even private entities like United Launch Alliance (ULA), Orbital Sciences and SpaceX. They use Vandenberg as a rocket testing and launch base.

One critical element of Vandenberg’s mission is to launch satellites into polar orbit. That is, orbits by which they pass over or near the North/South Poles.

In fact, Vandenberg is the only U.S. military facility from which unmanned satellites are launched into polar orbit. That alone is militarily important — critical, in fact.

In addition to polar launches, Vandenberg launches many other U.S. military reconnaissance systems, like test-launches — “quality assurance” — of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

That last item means Air Force crews take an operational missile from inventory. They remove the nuclear warheads. Then they shoot the package towards an instrumented range in the South Pacific Ocean. It looks like this…

Minuteman Missile Test Launch

Missile Test Launch

You fire one of these guys every now & again, to make sure they work. USAF image.

Making History Since Before There Was History

The area around Vandenberg is ancestral home to Chumash native peoples who roamed the hills and valleys for many centuries.

Spanish explorers sailed past in the 1500s and 1600s, but never established permanent sites. In about 1770, a Spanish expedition led by Gaspar de Portola passed through the area on a trek between establishing missions at San Diego and Monterey.

For most of the 1800s, the land that’s now Vandenberg AFB was a collection of ranches based on Spanish land grants to loyal Spanish citizens.

When California joined the U.S. in 1850, the loyal Spanish citizens became loyal American citizens.

The only major excitement of the century came in 1896, when the Southern Pacific Railroad (now part of Union Pacific) completed a coastal line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The right of way still runs through the Air Force base.

Union Pacific Tracks Run Along Vandenberg Coastline


Railway still runs, carrying freight (above) and scenic Amtrak trains. BWK photo.

While we’re on history, it’s worth noting that offshore Vandenberg is a place called Honda Point. There, the U.S. Navy suffered one of its worst-ever disasters on Sept. 8, 1923.

That night, a flotilla of seven destroyers steamed south at 20 knots in a fog. Navigation was poor, as subsequent events demonstrated.

Seven Aground; Five Sank

navy disaster

Navy’s terrible 1923 disaster. Navy Historical Center image.

All ships hit rocks. Five vessels were demolished. Two ships worked their way free. 23 sailors died.

Fast forward to September 1941 when the U.S. Army bought about 200,000 coastal acres that eventually became Vandenberg AFB.

The Army named its new locale Camp Cooke, after a Mexican-American War cavalry officer — Col. Philip St. George Cooke — who came west as part of the “Mormon Brigade,” the only religious-based unit in U.S. military history.

Camp Cooke trained infantry and armored units during World War II. The beaches and hillsides were similar to many future battlefields across the Pacific and Atlantic theaters.

Near the end of the war, Camp Cooke housed a prison camp for Axis captives. Eventually, those facilities became part of the federal prison at Lompoc.

When the Missile Age dawned in the 1950s, along came Air Force with an urgent need for a training site and, for a while, America’s first combat-ready missile base.

In the late 1950s, the Air Force took over Camp Cooke and renamed it Vandenberg AFB, after Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg who was a World War II hero.

The transition from Army camp to missile base was completed in December 1958, when Vandenberg successfully launched its first missile, a Thor IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile).

Two months later, Vandenberg launched the world’s first polar orbiting satellite, Discoverer I, based on a Thor/Agena staging combination.

The Discoverer series of satellites provided other significant firsts.

In 1960, Discoverer XIII ejected a data capsule from orbit, and the device was recovered from the Pacific Ocean — the first man-made object ever retrieved from space. Later, an aircraft snared the parachute of a descending capsule from Discoverer XIV, marking the first air recovery in history.

Discoverer XIV, Post-Flight


Recovery team admiring their handiwork. USAF photo.

These recoveries were described at the time as scientific research. But the actual program name was “Corona,” which was America’s first photo reconnaissance satellite program.

Along these lines, one tenant on Vandenberg real estate is the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). It’s a secretive organization with few tales to tell. Not to an open-source audience, anyhow. Just use your imagination.

Well, okay; I have a few photos.

Yes, NRO Logo.

NRO Logo

Note that near-polar orbit. BWK photo.

Got a Badge?

wrong road

Do NOT drive down the wrong road! BWK photo.

Behind the wire, much of Vandenberg is populated by very smart people who do super-advanced math, physics, engineering and more. All with a space-oriented national security mission, in particular ultra-sophisticated payloads (aka spy-satellites).

If you pay attention, you hear things that aren’t exactly everyday conversation… Terms like “parameters of the orbital element set.”

Or other terms that aren’t part of most people’s everyday lexicon: Semi-major axis… Eccentricity… Inclination… Right ascension of the ascending node… Argument of perigee…

These concepts are deeply mathematical and highly astronomical. Basically, they establish the size, shape and orbital orientation of a satellite in space. It’s part of how people who do rocket science figure out how to put satellites into particular spots up in the sky.

Oh wait… You thought that satellites just whizzed around? Not quite…

For example, there’s a thing called a “Molniya Orbit.” Its track looks like this over the surface of the earth…

Molniya Orbit

Molniya Orbit. Hmm…

How do you get a satellite to do that curlicue thing? You do it with a rocket of course, and a lot of math and rocket science.

A Molniya Orbit is elliptical and highly “eccentric.” The satellite slows down at what’s called “apogee” in the Northern Hemisphere, which leads to longer duration over certain spots.

Then the bird quickly whips through what’s called “perigee” in the Southern Hemisphere. This provides longer “overhead availability” in the Northern Hemisphere — nearly 75% of the satellite’s orbital period.

Rocket-wise, this kind of thing is quite a trick. Lots of ultra-fine calculations. Put a rocket at an exact velocity at a certain spot in the sky aimed in an unerring direction relative to the earth. Then let gravity and orbital mechanics do the rest.

This is but one tool in the science and engineering kit of the people at Vandenberg. There’s plenty more that goes on behind the wire… Astonishing stuff.

When I was there, I visited Space Launch Complex 2 (SLC-2), an active rocket site. Crews were cleaning it up after a recent launch. Photography of actual assets is restricted behind the wires, so here’s an Air Force photo of the site with a Delta II rocket awaiting its moment.

Delta II at SLC-2, Vandenberg


Yes, this really is rocket science. USAF photo.

One key takeaway from all of this is that rocket science is hard. It’s hard math, hard physics, hard chemistry, hard metallurgy, hard engineering of every stripe.

Everything about shooting rockets requires astonishing levels of care. Attention to detail at every level. Nothing is too small to ignore.

Consider the payloads. People build satellites and components in “clean rooms,” which in many cases have higher standards than hospital operating rooms.

Or consider rocket fuel, a blend of energetic materials that can explode and burn hotter than the surface of the sun if someone screws up.

Range preparations are meticulous, down to measuring the smallest gusts of wind.

It takes decades of education, effort, training and more to develop the human skill sets and technical capabilities you see at Vandenberg. These range from an academic pipeline of smart teachers and grad students in universities, all the way to talented welders on the scaffolding.

Yet even the greatest efforts can be undone by only a few members of Congress who decide to slash a budget. They can flush irreplaceable capabilities down the drain. It has happened before.

Let’s close by revisiting a point I mentioned above.

Much of Vandenberg is rugged, mountainous and entirely undeveloped. Predominant groundcover includes chaparral, with coastal sage scrub and oak. There’s all manner of wildlife.

We’re a Long Way from the Mean Streets of LA


Unspoiled nature of Vandenberg. BWK photo.

Vandenberg is stunning… gorgeous… captivating… breathtaking… drop-dead beautiful. If it wasn’t a secret rocket base, it would be a national park.

Okay, Here’s Another Shot…


They don’t make real estate like this in California anymore. BWK photo.

Aside from cattle ranching in the 19th Century, a skinny rail line in 1896 and a couple years of Army training in the 1940s and 1950s, Vandenberg is a time machine of “lost” California. Indeed, the beaches and dunes (many miles of them) may as well be resurrected from the days pre-Spain.

Away from the light human footprint of military buildings, road grid and launch pads, the rest of Vandenberg is highly protected from development.

None of the backcountry areas are open to the public. Thus, Vandenberg protects not just the nation’s greatest rocket secrets, but also a priceless slice of original coastal habitat of central/southern California.

In this respect, Vandenberg is two unique, critical, irreplaceable ecosystems: advanced rockets and nearly untouched nature. It’s a broad spectrum of history and development, from pre-Spanish days right up to the cutting edge of science, and of mankind exploring the heavens and peeking back down at earth.

I came away from Vandenberg with the sense that it’s a national treasure. And that brings out the best in people.

In some respects, Vandenberg makes you want to be a rocket scientist. But if that’s too much, it still makes you want to be better than you thought you could ever be.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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