Thursday, September 20, 2012

SpaceX, Santa Maria & Space Coast West

While Mars rover Curiosity, Space Shuttle Endeavour and NASA have been getting most of the media attention lately, SpaceX has been busy. 

The company announced today that it is targeting October 7 as the launch date for its first cargo supply flight to the International Space Station under contract with NASA. Space X's Dragon supply craft will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

Meanwhile, in California, SpaceX's official signage went up at Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Los Angeles. SpaceX is building its own launch pad there designed to launch both crewed and robotic spacecraft into orbit - and beyond. 

Photo credit: SpaceX

SpaceX's brand-new sign at Vandenberg Air Force Base

This is not the first time that ambitious plans have been forged for VAFB's launch capabilities. I discovered this the last time I visited the Santa Maria Museum of Flight, near the base. One of the retirees working there as a volunteer museum guide shared interesting details with me regarding VAFB's role as a future space shuttle launch site that first emerged in the late 1970s, as the shuttle concept was being developed. 

He showed me group photos of engineers in front of a shuttle mockup, signed posters, starting to yellow with age, of Enterprise in flight position on a launch pad at Vandenberg, taken years prior to the first actual shuttle flight in 1981. He also showed me a heat tile from the doomed shuttle Challenger, acquired by the Museum as a reminder of what could have been. 

By the time Columbia made its successful maiden voyage into orbit and back again, Santa Maria was already positioning itself to become the city behind Vandenberg, a community ready to welcome an influx of skilled labor, money, vitality and tourism. During the early 80s, NASA was planning to expand its shuttle launch capability to VAFB, to create, in essence, a Space Coast West location. The people of Santa Maria were eager to step into that role. 

Those hopes and dreams, like so many others, were dashed in an instant due to the Challenger disaster in 1986, as NASA cancelled plans to launch the space shuttle from Vandenberg.
Space Coast West never came to be. 

Until now. 

SpaceX has revived this dream, as the company is planning an ambitious launch schedule, both from Kennedy Space Center and Vandenberg. Santa Maria looks like it is perched at the brink of reviving its dream to re-invent itself as a city rooted in the excitement, promise and economic boon that is spaceflight. 

As far as I know, the only space shuttle that has ever been at Vandenberg was Enterprise, never meant to fly in space. Please let me know if you know of any other shuttles that have been at Vandenberg for any reason. 

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