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Vandenberg to launch its tallest rocket

The 235-foot-tall Delta IV Heavy rocket is believed to be carrying a top-secret spy satellite for the U.S. government. The blastoff is expected to shake up nearby Lompoc.

January 20, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • The Delta IV Heavy rocket set to lift off Thursday afternoon from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc is believed to be carrying a spy satellite.
The Delta IV Heavy rocket set to lift off Thursday afternoon from Vandenberg… (United Launch Alliance )

Perched in the fog-covered hills of Lompoc north of Santa Barbara sits a massive 23-story rocket ready to blast off from Vandenberg Air Force Base.


FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post stated that rocket's spy-satellite payload is capable of taking pictures detailed enough to distinguish the make and model of an automobile thousands of miles below. Its range is hundreds of miles.

The three-engine Delta IV Heavy rocket, the tallest ever to be launched from the base, will be carrying a top-secret spy satellite for the U.S. government capable of snapping pictures detailed enough to distinguish the make and model of an automobile hundreds of miles below, analysts say.

As early as Thursday afternoon, the massive rocket will lift off from the base's Space Launch Complex 6, leaving a thick white plume over the Pacific Ocean as it cuts across the afternoon sky. At 235 feet tall, it's so large that base officials have studied whether the thunderous blastoff will shatter windows nearby.

"We got the word out to people, so they don't think it's an earthquake," said Lt. Ann K. Blodzinski, an Air Force spokeswoman. "Even if you don't see it, you're definitely going to feel it. It's significantly more powerful than our typical launches at Vandenberg."

The Air Force has closed nearby locations, such as Jalama Beach County Park, as a precaution. But that won't stop townspeople from coming out to see the show, said Lompoc Mayor John Linn. The base is the city's largest employer.

"Everyone will be in their front yards for this one," he said. "Living here, you get used to launches. But this is different. This is the big kahuna."

About 10 seconds after the rocket hurtles toward the sky, a sound wave "as loud as a freight train" will sweep over Lompoc, a town of about 43,000, Linn said. "It'll rattle windows and make dogs bark, that's for sure."

Southland residents eager to see the blastoff set for 1:08 p.m. can head to the beaches or the mountains for a glimpse. But it may be difficult to see because it's a daytime launch.

The Space Launch Complex 6 is known on base as "Slick Six." The launch pad built in 1969 was once intended to accommodate space shuttle launches, but they remained in Florida. Since then, the launch pad has gone through many renovations. Most recently, Vandenberg spent $100 million on upgrades over three years.

The rocket was built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and the Boeing Co. It is the nation's largest unmanned rocket.

Three hydrogen-fueled engines — each roughly the size of a semi-truck — provide 17 million horsepower.

When the engines roar to life Thursday, more than 350 Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne engineers and technicians will be watching. It took them five years to develop and four years to assemble the engines at the company's sprawling Canoga Park facility, said Steve Bouley, the company's vice president of launch vehicle and hypersonic systems.

"It's a very complex product," he said.

Because the launch is closer to home, many Rocketdyne employees will be able to attend the liftoff, Bouley said.

The rocket made its maiden flight in 2004 and is capable of lifting payloads of up to 24 tons into low Earth orbit. All four of the previous Delta IV Heavy launches took place at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Although little is known about what exactly the rocket will be lifting into space — because it is classified — analysts say it is probably a high-powered $1-billion spy satellite. Their speculation is based on the customer being identified as the National Reconnaissance Office, the secretive federal umbrella agency that operates spy satellites.

While Cape Canaveral is the launch site for NASA's civilian space program, Vandenberg has been the site of military space projects for more than half a century.

The 98,000-acre base situated along the Pacific Ocean has been the primary site for launching spy satellites since the beginning of the Cold War because of its ideal location for putting satellites into a north-to-south orbit.

The launch is slated to be webcast beginning at 12:43 p.m. at the rocket maker's website, http://www.ulalaunch.com.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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