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Unused West Coast Launch Pad Slipping into Mothballs

October 1, 1988

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) _ As hundreds of NASA workers prepare for the next shuttle launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a small Air Force team is trying to keep a never-used West Coast shuttle launchpad from rusting away.

The $3.5 billion pad, standing next to the Pacific Ocean on the central California coast, was intended to give the Air Force a way to launch shuttles into polar orbit - in which they circle the globe north to south, instead of east to west.

The Air Force still needs to put its satellites into polar orbits, because that is the path best suited for satellites to spy on the Soviet Union, but not necessarily with the shuttle. The explosion of the Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, convinced the Air Force that it should not rely on the shuttle but should turn to unmanned, expendable rockets to launch its satellites.

The decision halted a mammoth effort begun in 1979, building enormous movable structures as well as a harbor. It also guaranteed that a shuttle will not be launched from Vandenberg for many years, if ever.

One casualty was the nearby coastal community of Lompoc, which was forced to trade shuttle launches for flower festivals as its main tourist attraction.

Shuttle launches were expected to draw throngs of people to the scenic community of 32,000 that is surrounded by fields of flowers. But when it became clear a shuttle might never be launched from Vandenberg, Lompoc pinned its hopes for the future on the town’s distinction as producer of more than half of the world’s flower seeds.

After Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge declared in July 1986 that sole reliance on the shuttle was ″a major mistake for this country,″ work on Space Launch Complex 6 slowed.

The complex was dropped into ″minimum facility caretaker″ status, a level costing $40 million to $50 million annually and requiring four years to reactivate.

The Air Force soon downgraded the pad again and began mothballing. The estimate of how long it would take to reactivate slipped to the indefinite.

″We’ve never put a number on it but it’s well over four years,″ said Lt. Col. Dennis Masson, director of the Engineering and Facilities Management Launch Facility Program Office. ″I would guess, personally, you’re probably talking about six years easily.″

One of the premises of mothball status was that much of the equipment would be sent to NASA and elsewhere, and Masson has been doing that, giving away everything from computers to screwdrivers.

The Navy got M.V. Independence, a small ship that would have retrieved expended booster rockets from the Pacific Ocean and returned them to a small harbor on the shore of the 154-square-mile base.

Nearly 22,000 components worth about $85 million have been given away: $75 million to NASA and about $10 million to the Navy and other Air Force agencies.

″We know, for instance, when we ever start launching shuttles here, I think we’re going to have a whole new computer system. So our computers are basically not worth anything to us,″ Masson said.

The change to a new computer system means the pad will be far from ready if it is needed.

″We could not just walk in and turn the buttons on,″ Masson said. ″We’d have to go through a rather rigorous procurement process.″

The Air Force also would have to bring the launch site into step with the current engineering of the space shuttle system. NASA has made changes to the orbiter and ground equipment since the mothball decision, and because most of Vandenberg’s engineers have left, new engineers would have to be brought in to assess the impact of the changes on the launch site. That would add two or three years to the reactivation process, Masson said.

At the peak of construction there were 4,300 workers. In October 1986, when the site was put in ″minimum facility caretaker″ status, there were about 2,100 workers. Those plus 400 more from Kennedy Space Center would have been needed for launches.

Keeping the system in mothballs will cost $10 million annually and require 40 or 50 workers, about half of them painters and paint chippers. Layoffs and attrition have reduced the work force to 250 so far.

Much of the maintenance will be inspections of the systems and protection of enormously expensive items such as the 27-story, 8,000-ton mobile service tower.

″It would cost us a fortune, something in the area of over a hundred million dollars to replace that particular structure,″ Masson said.

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