Other Points of Departure
The Rest of America’s Gateway to Space

237 Old sign outside Vandenberg Air Force Base. CLUI photo

THOUGH VERY SMALL SATELLITES CAN be deployed from rockets launched from anywhere on earth, including from ships, submarines, and aircraft, larger space assets, like surveillance and communication satellites, are generally launched from fixed, land-based launch complexes.

Delivering large payloads to space is very difficult, and costs millions of dollars per pound. It takes tremendous amounts of energy to break the confines of gravity (speeds over 15,000 mph are generally required to get objects 100 miles above the surface, into low earth orbit). And sophisticated engineering is required to do so reliably enough to carry satellites, some costing hundreds of millions of dollars to make.

Currently only a handful of companies build rockets that do this, though they represent a huge industry of R&D and suppliers. And only a few places in the USA have the capability to launch these vehicles into orbit to deliver their payload. Of these sites, four are at NASA or military bases and two are commercial or state-run. And of these, one dominates, and operates on the scale of Cape CanaveralVandenberg Air Force Base.

Vandenberg is the West Coast Cape, where more than 500 orbital satellite launches have taken place, about the same number as at Cape Canaveral. It is located on the north Pacific, on a bulge on the California coastline, enabling it to launch vehicles southward over the ocean without overflying land, and enabling the placement of payloads into longitudinally looping polar orbits, allowing them to scan anywhere on the earth’s surface (as the earth rotates perpendicular to a polar orbit). This is the orbit favored by American intelligence organizations. Vandenberg is also used to launch government research satellites, for NASA, NOAA, and other scientific projects needing a polar orbit.

There are currently six active launch complexes at Vandenberg: SLC 2, used for Delta II rockets; SLC 3 East, used for Lockheed’s Atlas V; SLC 3West, used for Space X’s Falcon 1; SLC 6 for the Boeing’s Delta IV; SLC 8 for the Orbital Science Corporation’s Minotaur; and SLC 576 E, used for Orbital Science’s Taurus rocket.

There are at least 5 inactive launch sites at Vandenberg, left undeveloped after platforms such as the Titan and Thor rockets were discontinued. The first polar orbiting satellite, Discoverer 1, launched on a Thor, was a precursor for the recently declassified Corona spy satellite program, based out of SLC 10. Vandenberg is also an ICBM test launching site, over the years launching Atlas, Titan, Minuteman, and Peacekeeper ICBMs over the Pacific Ocean, to be tracked by the antenna sites at Kwajalein Atoll. And Vandenberg is a current Missile Defense Site, with anti-ballistic missiles ready to launch at enemy ICBMs that might be coming over the poles, or across the Pacific.

On January 20, 2011, a Delta IV Heavy rocket lifted off at Vandenberg, the largest rocket ever launched from the West Coast. Like the Delta IV Heavy launch two months earlier at Cape Canaveral, the rocket contained a classified spy satellite for the NRO. This mission, known as NROL-49, was the first of a series of Delta IV Heavys to be launched from the newly upgraded SLC 6 at Vendenberg. Both coasts are now equipped for the largest payloads.

238 Wallops Island, Virginia, the other East Coast launch complex. CLUI photo Beyond the U.S.’s main space launch complex at Cape Canaveral and its associated Kennedy Space Center (discussed earlier), there is another major East Coast rocket launch site facing the Atlantic Ocean: the Wallops Flight Facility, on the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula, in Virginia. Much smaller than Cape Canaveral, this is a busy launch complex, though it is used mostly for sub-orbital and atmospheric launches, using rockets smaller than 20 feet or so in length.

Wallops has had over 14,000 launches since being established as an early NACA (later NASA) rocket site in 1945, and was used for high velocity, high altitude tests, using research rockets such as sounding rockets (to take measurements of the atmosphere). The facility has six primary launch pads and a few blockhouses, spread along coastal Seawall Road. It is operated by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

At the southern end of the Wallops Flight Facility is the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (“MARS”), a state-run initiative to use some of the site for larger, orbital satellite deployments. Since its inception in 2003, there have been three successful MARS launches, using Orbital Science Corp’s Minotaur rocket to place government satellites in low earth orbit.

239 Kodiak Launch Complex, Alaska. CLUI photo The Kodiak Launch Complex, on Kodiak Island in Alaska, was the first commercial spaceport in the nation to be built outside of a pre-existing federal launch site. It is operated by the Alaska Aerospace Corporation, a state-owned company. Its northern Pacific location is convenient for launching polar orbiting satellites.

Kodiak has had 14 successful launches since its first in 2001, though most of them were target rockets, launched in order to be shot down over the Pacific by other rockets, as part of the testing of national missile defense programs. Its most recent launch however, on November 19, 2010, using a Minotaur IV rocket, fielded a number of small satellites into orbit.

241 One of two launch areas at Kodiak. CLUI photo The only other U.S. launch site with a known history of launching rockets that have placed satellites in orbit is a converted oil drilling platform owned by a Russian company, that is home ported in Long Beach, California. The rig drives itself to equatorial, international waters, near the Republic of Kiribati, in order to conduct its launches. Generally, closer to the equator is best for launching satellites into a geostationary orbitsatellites that rotate with the earth above fixed points, favorable for communication or observation platforms (this is why the main European launch complex is located in French Guyana, in South America).

After the launch, the platform returns to its berth in the Port of Long Beach, along with its sister craft, the Sea Launch Commander, used as the launch control and support facility. The platform’s first launch was in 1999, and it has had 27 successful launches since then (and three failures), deploying geostationary communication satellites for XM Satellite Radio, PanAmSat, Echostar, and Direct TV.

243 Sea Launch, at home port in Long Beach, California. CLUI photo Sea Launch is technically not part of the United States, as it is a boat (registered in the Cayman Islands), but the American company Boeing was the lead company operating this unique venture, with Norwegian partners converting the rig, and Russian and Ukranian companies providing the Zenit rockets. The company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, and was bought by its Russian partner, the rocket company Energia, which now owns 85% of the Sea Launch company. They say it will resume launching in 2011, and remain based in Long Beach, close to where many of the satellites in the USA are made.

There are a few other launch sites outside the borders of the USA which are under United States control, though they are used for rocket and missile tests, and not for satellite deployment. Foremost among these is Kwajalein Atoll, part of the remote Marshall Islands, a major hub for American military in the Pacific. The islands were captured from the Japanese in WWII, and have since served as a communication, testing, and logistics base, including for the first atomic testing program, Operation Crossroads (though no nuclear bombs have been detonated there).

The military leases eleven of the islands from the Marshallese, and facilities include tracking and telemetry stations, launch sites, and a principal satellite control earthstation for the military’s fleet of deployed satellites, including surveillance platforms and the GPS system. The atoll is part of a 750,000 square mile missile test area in the Pacific Ocean, now called the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. In recent years, anti-ballistic missiles have been launched from Kwajalein’s Meck Island to shoot down mock enemy missiles launched from ships, Vandenberg, and from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska. Another, Omelek Island, is a launch complex for testing rockets for Space X, Elon Musk’s company.

Other launch sites for non-orbiting missiles include Point Mugu, part of a Navy complex near Ventura, California; Poker Flat, a state-run suborbital launch site in Alaska; Fort Greely, Alaska, the nation’s anti-ballistic missile base; and Barking Sands, a military range on Kauai, in Hawaii. Johnston Atoll, one of the Pacific’s loneliest islands, has been used to launch rockets into space for the atomic testing program, but is no longer. Then, of course, there are the 450 Minuteman III ICBMs still at the ready in 450 silos (principally in North Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska), and the 14 Ohio class submarines that can launch our 350 Trident ICBMs.