LOMPOC, Calif. — While Vandenberg Air Force Base prepares for the first West Coast launch of a space shuttle next March, officials in nearby Lompoc Valley are bracing for hordes of spectators.
"We're not selling tickets," Lompoc Police Capt. Bob Hebert said. "We have 8 million people living 2 1/2 hours down the road (in Greater Los Angeles). What if they wake up one morning and say, 'It's a nice day to go see the shuttle.' We'd be in a bad position."
Anywhere from 50,000 to 1 million people are expected to swarm into the 10- by 3-mile valley and surrounding areas March 20 when the shuttle is launched from Vandenberg, 10 miles away. Many believe 200,000 visitors is a conservative estimate--a huge crowd for a valley inhabited by 50,000 people.
"We're going to be overwhelmed," Hebert said. "I'm a little apprehensive about what's going to happen and our ability to handle it."
Lompoc Mayor Andrew Salazar is more optimistic, predicting "orderly, organized crowd control." But, he added, "I don't think we can comfortably accommodate half a million to a million people."
Local officials fear that some tourists might park on colorful fields that make the valley America's premier producer of flower seeds. They also predict massive traffic jams, litter problems, sold-out motels, possible food shortages, drunk drivers and frayed tempers among shuttle fans unable to get a good view of the liftoff.
The Air Force won't allow the public onto Vandenberg property during launches, so visitors won't get closer than seven miles from the launch pad. And they'll be able to see the shuttle only after it soars above the 1,200-foot hills surrounding the pad.
Crowds are expected to dwindle after the first launch.
"Word will get out it's no big deal," Lompoc City Councilman John Bullock said.
But government planner Mike Powers, who works with a committee of local officials developing plans for dealing with the tourist influx, said crowds could grow again to 200,000 when shuttle landings begin at Vandenberg, probably in 1988. Even then, tourists will be kept at least four miles from the runway, and won't be able to view the actual touchdown.
For now, officials are preparing for the first launch by developing traffic control plans and informational brochures to give to motorists as they inch along in traffic jams.
With only three two-lane roads leading into Lompoc Valley, "You'll see long lines of cars," Salazar said. "I wouldn't be surprised if you see lines 20 miles long."
"We're going to have an awful lot of recreational vehicles coming in and not a lot of space to put them," Hebert said. "Street parking will be a problem. . . . All the motels will be full. The restaurants will have lines. When you can't meet the basic needs of food and shelter, tempers are going to flare."
Santa Barbara County Supervisor DeWayne Holmdahl, whose district encompasses Lompoc, said if crowding is too severe, authorities "will have to close down Lompoc. They won't let anybody in."
Traffic jams also are expected as far southeast as Santa Barbara, 40 miles away, where traffic lights on U.S. 101 could cause huge backups.
Holmdahl said a major concern is that Vandenberg's often foggy coastal weather could force two- or three-day delays in shuttle launches.
"What are you going to do with 200,000 or 300,000 people in this town who come to see a launch and start having parties?" he asked. "There will be a law enforcement problem."