The future of Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc, as the West Coast launching site for the space shuttle is in doubt. Built at a cost of $3 billion, the shuttle launch complex is beset by technical problems apart from the overall turmoil of America's space program. When the first shuttle launch from Vandenberg will take place is anybody's guess. The more pressing question is whether any should.
The Air Force uses Vandenberg to put satellites into polar orbits (north to south), which are perpendicular to the equator and afford a view of the entire Earth. Satellites launched from the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Fla., go into equatorial orbits (west to east), which are good for communications but not for spying on the northernmost parts of the Soviet Union.
When the shuttle was to be America's sole vehicle into space, it was crucial to give it a launching pad for polar orbits. Now, however, everyone agrees that the shuttle will never replace all expendable rockets. There are some tasks--lofting satellites to orbit, for example--that are performed better, more reliably and more cheaply by rockets than by the complicated, expensive and finicky space shuttle. Why put astronauts in space when you don't need them for the job at hand?
Some of the Air Force's biggest and heaviest intelligence satellites have been designed for the shuttle's roomy cargo bay, but a new, more powerful generation of rockets is expected to be available by 1989. It is unlikely that any shuttle launch from Vandenberg will occur before then.
The shuttle program itself is on hold, pending a redesigning of the solid-fuel booster rockets that caused the Challenger accident last January. The Vandenberg shuttle complex may also have to be rebuilt because of faulty design: The control room is too close to the launching pad, and the system for venting exhaust gases from the shuttle is inadequate and could cause an explosion on launching.
The decision to use rockets to launch satellites has several important consequences for the space program. It obviates the need for building a replacement shuttle for the Challenger, and it makes the Vandenberg shuttle-launching site unnecessary. The only advantage to putting astronauts into polar orbits would be to enable them to retrieve and service broken satellites. Mothballing the shuttle facility at Vandenberg could save as much as $1.6 billion from now till 1992. For that price you could discard balky satellites and launch new ones to replace them.
Building a shuttle spaceport at Vandenberg was the right decision when it was made, but it is the wrong decision now. Congress should tell the Air Force that plans have changed, and that this facility is no longer needed. It is a white elephant, a monument to the go-go days of space. Vandenberg Air Force Base will remain as the launching site for rockets carrying satellites to polar orbits, but the shuttle complex there adds nothing to America's space resources.