Rearview Mirror | Flights of Fancy: When Santa Barbara County Almost Launched a Space Shuttle Enterprise
With the rugged beauty of Santa Barbara’s north county coastline at its feet and the Santa Ynez Mountains offering a dramatic backdrop, the Space Shuttle Enterprise stood on the launch pad of Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 6, coupled to its solid rocket boosters and foreboding external tank.
In early 1985, the Enterprise was flown by Space Shuttle Discovery to Vandenberg for flight vehicle verification tests in preparation for the shuttle’s inaugural launch from SLC-6. Fifteen years in the making, Discovery’s launch in October 1986 would have heralded the west coast’s induction into manned space exploration.
Robert Crippen, commander of the forthcoming Vandenberg mission, watched the ill-fated launch from New Mexico. The seven-man Discovery crew was undertaking payload training at Sandia National Laboratories and paused to watch the launch on television.
“That accident had ramifications on so many levels,” Crippen explains, during a recent interview about Vandenberg’s role in the space shuttle program. “We lost some very good friends, the shuttle fleet was grounded and the launches out of Vandenberg were ultimately scrapped.”
Established in 1971 to review possible launch and recovery sites for NASA’s proposed space shuttle program, the Shuttle Launch and Recovery Board came up with two possible options in 1972—Kennedy Space Center and Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Needing a coastal launch site due to the shuttle’s ballistic water-recoverable solid rocket booster concept and wanting to avoid acquiring further land, Kennedy was selected because of its easterly launch projection and Vandenberg for its polar orbits. While a number of sites were considered, the shuttle program eventually found a home at Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 6, with construction commencing in 1979.
Originally constructed for the United States Air Force’s aborted Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the launch facility was mothballed when the program was cancelled in 1969. Resurrecting the site for the NASA–Air Force collaboration and refitting it to Space Shuttle configuration ultimately cost more than $4 billion.
Unlike Kennedy Space Center, where the shuttle, booster rockets and external tank were assembled in the vehicle assembly plant and rolled to the launch pad, Vandenberg’s spacecraft was to be “stacked” at the launch pad, with payloads readied in adjacent cleanrooms.
A new launch tower with an escape system for the shuttle crew was added, as were two flame ducts for the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. Liquid hydrogen and oxygen storage tanks, payload preparation and change-out facilities, and a shuttle assembly building were added to the original complex.
The existing 5,500-foot Vandenberg runway was also lengthened to 15,000 feet to accommodate potential end-of-mission landings, and SLC-6 was declared operational during a ceremony held on October 15, 1985.
“Myself and the rest of the Discovery crew visited Vandenberg several times in preparation for our flight and were actually out there when Enterprise was on the pad for the fit check,” Crippen says. “That was an impressive sight.”
The shuttle’s orbital flights got underway at Kennedy Space Center on April 12, 1981, with the successful launch of STS-1. For the two-day mission, the two-man crew included John Young as commander and Crippen as pilot.
“I thought it was going to be difficult to get the vehicle off the ground because it was such a complicated thing,” Crippen says of the inaugural orbital launch. “When we lifted off, the main thought going through my mind was, ‘Don’t let me screw up.’ A lot of folks had worked very hard to get us to that point, and I certainly didn’t want to be the one who somehow didn’t make it successful.”
A further 23 missions departed from Kennedy Space Center prior to the ill-fated Challenger launch, and in the wake of the tragedy, both work at SLC-6 and the program itself came to a halt.
“The shuttle program immediately went into the Challenger investigation and stopped all activity at Vandenberg,” explains Charles B. Mars, who was NASA’s chief shuttle project engineer and served as NASA’s activation chief for Vandenberg.”
In the aftermath of the Challenger accident, the space shuttle program was overhauled, resulting in the cancellation of the Vandenberg launches and the facility’s closure.
“Challenger was why Vandenberg was scrapped,” Mars says. “We had one major issue at the Vandenberg pad that was still being worked on. When the main engines fired, the exhaust went into the tunnel, and if they had to be shut off for some reason, there was a backpressure that could have blown the ass end of the shuttle.
“We had a solution and then Challenger occurred. There was politics at play. Some of the Air Force guys wanted to stay with the big expendable launch vehicles instead of the shuttle, and that gave them all the ammunition they needed to shut down the shuttle out there.”
After the cancelation of STS-62-A, Crippen never flew another space shuttle mission.
A Naval aviator who went through the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base before being recruited for the MOL program, Crippen joined NASA in 1969. In addition to piloting the inaugural space shuttle orbital mission, he commanded three further shuttle flights before serving as director of the space shuttle program at NASA in Washington D.C. and then as director of Kennedy Space Center.
Looking back across his distinguished tenure with manned space flight, he has only one regret. “If I have one disappointment in my flying career, it was that I never got to fly out of Vandenberg,” says Crippen, who was twice scheduled to launch from the facility, first with the MOL program and then on a space shuttle. “I really wanted to do that.
“I think it was a mistake that the Air Force didn’t get to take advantage of the vehicle. I believe flying missions out of Vandenberg would have contributed a great deal.”
This story originally appeared in the winter 2015/16 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.