How to View Launches at Vandenberg Air Force Base

Copyright (C) 2016 Legal Engineering. All Rights Reserved.

Polar orbiting satellites are launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Lompoc (pronounced “Lompoke”), California, near Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, and Solvang. You can view them from public streets or an official viewing spot on the base.

Often, the Rocket Doesn’t Launch

Seeing a rocket launch is awesome, especially if you can get relatively close. Going to rocket launches, or attempting to view them can be tremendously frustrating and expensive. Often, the launch is scrubbed after you’ve traveled a long way and sacrificed one or more work days. Scrubbed launches can be scheduled for a week later, making it impractical for you to stay in the area until the launch. Attempts scheduled for the next day sometimes are rescheduled after you’ve made hotel arrangements for the evening, wasting your time and money. The weather doesn’t cooperate.

My record so far is about one successful viewing for every three attempts. If you are willing to invest that much inconvenience and time, here’s how you can view the next launch at Vandenberg.

How You Conduct Yourself Is Important

Vandenberg is a high-security area. Nuclear missile bases, spy satellites, missile defense radars and other classified things are there, there’s also a Federal prison next door. Vandenberg is the one polar-orbit space launch site for the whole country, and thus must stay operational for the security and defense of our country.

So, the concerns for the base are that you and the people around you are in danger from mundane risks as well as unusual ones, the security of the base could be violated, and the operational status of the base could be compromised. For example, wildfires at Vandenberg in 2016 brought down the country’s polar launch capability for two months.

In a situation like this, where there are real concerns and both the police and military will be present, the actions of one person can ruin things, permanently, for everyone else. We don’t want the police and the Air Force to close the streets we use as unofficial viewing spots, or stop opening their official viewing spots, and they’ll do just that if they feel that dangerous situations happened or even if they exceed their budgetfor managing people there.

At the last launch, there were just two police present to manage the roadblock at Ocean Avenue, and several hundred people parked their cars across the street from that point and viewed the launch on foot near their cars. We want those police to feel we’re no problem at all, just a bunch of nice science-oriented people behaving safely and having a great time. Similarly, soldiers dressed in camofluage (and big smiles) and civilian PR staff of the base showed up at the viewing point at Hawk’s Nest, where they generally host about 300 people with off-road parking and a porta potty. We want those folks to continue to operate that site for us.

So, please be on your best behavior:

  • Don’t try to sneak onto the base or any closed-off area. OK, that sounds like common sense, but these guys actually did it, and it’s claimed that they damaged a historical site. Don’t be like them.
  • Don’t bring alcohol and drugs. About marijuana: Federal police and military police are there and they aren’t required to follow the California marijuana laws. Yes, I know so many people smoke it on the street in California. But not on or adjacent to a military base. Possession and use are still a felony on their books, and they can send you to jail for a long time.
  • Bringing your pets is not advised. The base is home to lots of wildlife that pets like to chase. If your pet runs on to the base, there’s no going after it. And pets do lots of damage to crops in farm fields.
  • When you encounter police, military, or base personnel, say hello, listen to what they have to say, and cooperate. In general, they will be super-nice in return (this is a public-relations event for the base), but if demands are unreasonable or something rubs you wrong, please cooperate with them and keep your feelings bottled up until you’re off of the site.
  • Be nice to the folks around you and avoid arguments or fights. If you have to deal with the inevitable jerk, back off and give up your spot rather than standing your ground. Your rights aren’t worth spoiling things for everyone. Don’t give the cops a reason to work.
  • Park off of the street, leaving all lanes clear for traffic. Fire trucks and various odd base vehicles will be coming through in both directions, besides the regular civilian traffic, and all lanes must be kept accessable in case there’s an emergency or the people on the base need to evacuate. The base is a high-risk zone for fires, and a problem with the rocket will result in the release of very toxic chemicals. Non-essential personnel will be ordered to evacuate the base if there’s a problem, and will be going right past where you are.
  • Don’t stand in the street, and look carefully before you walk across it.
  • Be responsible for your kids. Besides keeping them out of the street, etc., never allow them to enter farm fields. Crop damage costs farmers so much.
  • Be nice to other people’s kids. We want them to be interested in space and rockets! Invite the parent present and the kids to look through your binoculars, etc. Parents are generally happier if you approach them, rather than the kids, first, but once the ice is broken the kids will be full of questions.

Information Sources

To keep up with the launch schedule, which can change at any time, subscribe to Brian Webb’s excellent Launch Alert Newsletter. Brian’s a volunteer, be nice to him. SpaceFlightNow’s Launch Schedule will have advance information of launches, not just at Vandenberg but all over the world.

Note that launches are rescheduled very often and can slip half a year or more from their original schedule. You might reserve a room for a launch weeks or months in advance, but remember to watch if it’s been rescheduled and cancel your room before there’s a penalty.

When a launch is listed as “NET” with a date, that means “No Earlier Than” and you should not count on the date given. We joke that it means “Never the Estimated Time”.

To get real-time launch information on your phone, subscribe to @SpaceFlightNow on twitter. Generally this streams so much information that you will only want to turn it on the day before a launch. Cellular internet will be very bad near Vandenberg during a launch, if it works at all. Before you arrive at the launch viewing site, set up your phone to receive the SpaceFlightNow tweets via SMS using this information from Twitter.

If you have a scanner or Amateur Radio, you can receive the launch countdown net on 386.3 MHz – I don’t know if it’s AM or FM modulated (aeronautical use is generally AM). The transmitter is generally turned on shortly before the launch, so expect it to be silent when you arrive.

Launch Viewing Sites

You can see some of the various pads and potential viewing sites on this Google Map annoted by Dan Dascalescu. As I write this, Dan hasn’t marked the SpaceX launch pad at SLC-4 which will be used for this flight, so you can see it here. SpaceX also has a landing pad at SLC-4, here, but it can only be used when the payload and orbit leave enough fuel to return to the landing site.

Viewing From Ocean Avenue

The closest spot you can get to SLC-4, the pad used by SpaceX, is on Ocean Avenue just Southeast of 13th Street and Arguello Boulevard, here. Ocean Avenue will have a police or military roadblock at this point, so you won’t be able to go to Surf Beach or get any closer to the pads until after the launch.

Although it’s the closest you can get to the pad, Ocean Avenue is often a really bad place to view a launch. During much of the year, especially in Summer, the coastal fog will cover this location, making it impossible to view the launch. I’ve stood on Ocean Avenue for a SpaceX launch which I heard quite clearly, but I couldn’t see a thing! I was, however, able to see a ULA launch in November 2016 clearly from the same spot. From this point on Ocean Avenue, the top of the SLC-3 building used by ULA may be visible above the crest of a hill, and if a ULA rocket is on the pad you can see the nose cone from just the right spot, but not the rest of the rocket until it’s launched. But the SpaceX rocket at SLC-4 won’t be visible at all until after it has launched.

If you wish to view from Ocean Avenue, arrive early. The best parking spots will be snapped up quickly, and you might find that it’s too foggy and decide to go to another viewing point. Program your GPS for “5014 West Ocean Avenue Lompoc, CA”.

The photo below shows the distance and angle from SLC-4 from the Ocean Avenue location. It’s 3.88 miles away, almost directly to your left as you face down the road toward the ocean. If you can see the top of the SLC-3 building, the Falcon will be visible just to the right of that once it launches.

Distance and angle from Ocean Avenue near 13th Street to SLC-4.

Viewing From Hawk’s Nest

The base will probably open its official viewing location at Hawk’s Nest for the launch, and this will be announced on Launch Alert and other sources. The site is often equipped with a porta potty, and military and civilian base personnel are there to guide you. Hawk’s Nest is usually out of the fog when Ocean Avenue is socked in. The upper 2/3 of ULA rockets on SLC-3 are visible from this location. I’ve not yet been there for a SpaceX launch and don’t know what, if any, of SLC-4 is visible before the launch.

Hawk’s Nest is a former RV park for base personnel, now overgrown except for the parking lot and roads used for launch viewing. You can reach it on Highway One by programming your GPS for “Azalea Lane, Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA”, and here is a map photo.

Hawk’s nest is much farther away from the pad than Ocean Avenue, about 9.1 miles.  The last time I was there (for a ULA launch that scrubbed) nobody but me brought a telescope or a tripod-mounted binoculars, and I spent a lot of time showing kids (and adults) the rocket through my equipment. This site is far enough from the pad that you should really bring at least a pair of binoculars.

Distance and angle from Hawk’s Nest to SLC-4

A Caution Regarding Viewing From Farm Roads

Some people view the launch from dirt roads in Lompoc and other areas adjacent to farmer’s fields. Stay out of the farmer’s fields, and keep your kids and pets out of them! Those crops are a farmer’s whole livelyhood, and you can do significant financial damage to some farmer just by allowing your kids or pets to run around in the fields. Crop damage will get launch viewers a bad reputation in Lompoc, and will result in the police being called to disperse us or the roads being blocked for the launch.

Viewing from LA

If you are in LA for the launch and the weather is clear, try going to a beach with a northern view.

I’ve tried to view a launch from a street in LA. The result was that I missed all but one second of it due to obstructions, and afterward I could see that the contrail was across half of the sky! The rocket flies over water while it’s ascending, to prevent hazards to people on land. So the beach will be best.

Viewing Night Launches From A Distance

Some night launches can be seen from Lake Tahoe or even farther. The ULA launches which make use of solid rocket boosters are brightest. Brian’s viewing page has some information on that.

Viewing From On The Base

Nobody’s invited me to enter the base (despite the fact that I’d give them a great speech at their site in return☺), so I can’t speak from experience. But I’ve seen through my binoculars people who are admitted to the base climb up a hill near Ocean Avenue that gives them an unobstructed view. I’ve also heard that the causeway between North and South base is a good viewing spot.

Other Viewing Sites

There’s a spot on Santa Lucia Canyon Road which has a partial pad view of SLC-4 and a full view of SLC-3. It’s said that the view is partially obscured by hedges and that the spot is liable to crowd up early. It is also possible to view the launch from Harris Grade, a nearby ridge-top road. Some people have viewed from the tracking base on Firefighter Road, but this is not recommended because the radio frequency exposure in the area is above health limits. There are strobe lights to warn you not to linger in the area.

More Distant Sites

You can view from mountaintops all around the area, and all of the way to LA. Brian Webb has some information here. I’ve not yet viewed a launch from these sites.

Viewing From Offshore

The areas offshore of the base from Point Sal to Point Arguello, extending to three miles from shore, are designated as 9 separate Danger Zones. The marine charts marking the Danger Zones are Chart 18721 and Chart 18700.

Zone 4, the area between the mouth of the Santa Ynez River and Point Arguello, extending to three miles from shore, is offshore of the South Base where pads 3 and 4 are. Your vessel may not stop or loiter there at any time, not just during a launch. So, viewing from the ocean will have to be at least 3 miles offshore.

The Federal safety rules concerning the Danger Zones are here. In addition, the area is within the Channel Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Vandenberg State Marine Reserve.

Before a launch, notices of prohibited zones should be listed in the weekly Local Notice to Mariners for Coast Guard District 11, but I couldn’t find any notice regarding the WorldView IV launch. They should also be broadcast on 2182 kHz, 2638 kHz, VHF channel 6 (156.30 MHz), VHF channel 12 (156.60 MHz), and VHF channel 16 (156.80 MHz). There should be notices on bulletin boards outside of Port Control Offices (Harbormasters) at Morro Bay, Port San Luis, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Channel Islands, and Port Hueneme Harbors, and “any established harbor of refuge between Santa Barbara and Morro Bay.” And there are supposed to be notices on loudspeakers from patrolling ships.

If you are admitted to the Point Pedernales and Point Arguello oil platforms, “Irene” should have a great view if there isn’t fog, and “Hildago”, “Harvest”, and “Hermosa” might as well.

Viewing From an Aircraft

Here’s a wonderful video of a SpaceX launch shot with a GoPro from a Cessna 182. I’m under those white clouds, not seeing anything, as the rocket comes out of the clouds and into view of the aircraft. Of course the base is within restricted airspace, so the plane couldn’t get too close. The base is on the Los Angeles chart. Activity on the base may be in the Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) and the chart says it’s announced by CTC Hawthorne radio on 122.2 and 122.3 MHz AM.

Viewing the First Stage Landing

If we ever get a return of the first stage to its landing site, the launch viewing sites at Ocean Avenue or Hawk’s Nest will be good to see it. Unfortunately, the rocket will go behind a hill from Ocean Avenue for the last seconds of descent. The rocket is going really fast on its way down and will in general not be visible until it lights off one of the descent burns. One or two descent burns could be visible, and only last a few seconds. Binoculars are called for, sharp eyes to acquire the rocket on its way down before aiming binoculars, and tons of luck.

The barge landing will happen close to directly south of Vandenberg and past San Diego (and the Mexican border) in international waters. From LA, this will be far past San Nicholas, San Clemente, or Catalina islands. Reddit /r/spacex user darga89 has this map of landing locations. You can get the approximate landing location from marine NAVAIDS issued before the flight to block certain areas from ship traffic, but they may close off a 100-mile-long patch of water..

There are folks who simulate the flight dynamics of the launch, and thus can forecast the landing site, I think you can find them at FlightClub. One such person is in the Reddit /r/spacex group as /u/TheVehicleDestroyer . Here is one of his videos.

SpaceX calls the barge an “Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship” (“ASDS”) and has named it Just Read the Instructions (“JRTI”) in a nod to the “Culture” novels of science fiction author Iain Banks.

Viewing the Return to Port After The Landing

After the launch, you can try to view the return of the First Stage to port in San Pedro, in the Los Angeles area, 2 or 3 hours drive from Lompoc. It will probably take the barge a whole day to get back to port, if not two days.  You can use one of the marine vessel tracking sites to track two of the vessels accompanying the barge, NRC Quest and a hired tugboat,  Pacific Warrior for the Iridium flight in January 2016, via their “AIS” radio transponders. For example, here is real-time tracking of NRC Quest on VesselFinder.

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SpaceX uses the East Channel in San Pedro, across the street from the San Pedro marina, here. Don’t go to the Queen Mary, it’s on the opposite side of the harbor. The photo below shows the barge (Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship) Just Read the Instructions (“JRTI”) and the ship NRC Quest, both at anchor.

The SpaceX barge (autonomous spaceport drone ship) Just Read the Instructions and the ship NRC Quest, at anchor in the East Channel, San Pedro California.

As you can see, the SpaceX area in the channel is fenced off with a public street and sidewalk on the other side, and the San Pedro Marina with its public parking is right there. Program your GPS for “210 Whalers Walk, San Pedro, CA” and then find somewhere else to park if the marina lot is already full.

It’s possible to peek over the fence, there’s a guard there who is assigned to keep you from taking photos. You can walk to the end of the dock and watch for JRTI to return. The first stage atop the barge is really something to see!

After the barge docks, there will be several days of processing the rocket at the dock, and it should be visible over the fence during this time. An anchoring fixture is attached to the top of the rocket by men on a very tall cherry-picker, and the rocket is lifted from the barge by a crane and set on the dock, still standing up. The crane hook or guy wires remain attached to the top of the rocket to keep it safe from wind while the rocket is “safed” for transport by removing liquids and gases, detonators or explosives, batteries, etc. and pressurizing the fuel tanks (probably with nitrogen) to give them structural integrity during transport.  Finally, the rocket is set down on a special trailer. The trailer takes it to SpaceX in Hawthorne for servicing, and hopefully eventual reuse.

Viewing Military Launches

Launches of military payloads, such as the “NROL” missions of spy satellite launches for the National Reconnaissance Office, will not have the exact time of the launch announced. Less than a day before the expected launch, the base will announce a 6 hour window. If you are lucky, they launch in the first minute of the window, but there’s no telling. Don’t expect any of the usual public support activities to be operating for a military launch.

Viewing Equipment

A low-magnification telescope or a binoculars is the best equipment for viewing a launch. High magnification will actually look worse. Even from Ocean Avenue, the limiting factor on viewing will be heat shimmer in the atmosphere.

I got good results using Orion Resolux 15×70 binoculars, mounted on the Orion Paragon-Plus Binocular Mount and Tripod, from the Orion Telescope store in Cupertino, California. This gets rid of binocular shake, makes it easy and comfortable to use the binoculars for an extended period. It makes it really easy to pass the binoculars to people of different heights, as the parallelogram will move to their height while keeping the binoculars pointed in the same direction. This is about a $600 kit, including taxes, at this writing.

If you aren’t up to buying that, any old binoculars will be better than nothing.

What To Bring

Besides your viewing equipment, bring sunblock, bug spray, water, a snack, a lawn chair, and a book to read. It’s better to set up early and have some book time. If you’re on Ocean Avenue, bushes on the other side of the street are going to be the best option should you need to relieve yourself. Some hand cleaner might be nice to have.

Where to Stay Near Lompoc

Since my family are generally at work and school during launches (and I own my company), I will come alone and won’t be looking for a fancy place to stay. The Motel 6 in Lompoc is usually about $50 when booked in advance, and you can generally find a 10%-off coupon online. I generally arrive in the evening the day before the launch. The cleaners really try hard and this inn has had a recent remodel, but Motel 6 is infamous for previous occupants leaving some hints of their presence. There’s also a derelict car in the parking lot that has been there for at least a year. There’s an extra charge for Internet service, and it doesn’t always work great even after you’ve paid for it.

Inn of Lompoc must have been nice once, but it’s a low-budget place now. IMO only stay there as a last resort. Read the reviews on the other budget places in Lompoc before you book, some of them get pretty bad notices. The nicer places are generally over $100.

If you want to be fancier, there are tons of places to stay in Solvang, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, etc. Lots of things to do, too. Just be cognizant of how far you are from Lompoc and the launch, and make allowances for commute traffic. There is generally a commute on Highway 1 to/from Santa Barbara.

Eating Near Lompoc

The local cuisine is Santa-Maria-Style Barbecue which is based on beef tri-tip, and you should have it once when you’re here. The Hitching Postin the tiny, isolated town of Casmalia is said to be where crews went to eat after launches, and has some space memorabilia on display. The Old San Luis BBQ Company had good food in a modest setting. I stopped in at the Far Western Tavern, and while Santa-Maria-Style Barbecue wasn’t on the bar/lunch menu, they made it for me anyway. There are lots of good restaurants, whatever you’re eating.

Driving to Lompoc

Lompoc is a 4-5 hour drive from the San Francisco Bay area, and 2.5 hours from LA without traffic. If you are used to going from SF to LA on I-5, 101 and 1 are going to seem much slower.

Lompoc Surf Amtrak Train Station

The Surf Amtrak Station is on the beach, about 15 miles from the town of Lompoc. There will be no taxis there, and I’ve never seen a bus.

The train will not run for some hours before a launch, and Surf Beach will be evacuated. Amtrak will run a bus bridge around Surf Station. Trains are allowed through soon after the launch.

It might be possible to view the launch by bringing your bicycle on the train and riding to the Ocean Avenue spot (which is a lot closer than central Lompoc), but you’d need to arrive several hours before the launch to avoid the train closure. Amtrak might be able to tell you the closing time.

The train, during the day, offers the best view of launch pads and other areas on the base that you can’t see any other way, although they will go by quickly.

Lompoc Surf Beach

Surf beach is often cold windy and foggy, but it’s a nice place to have a walk before your long drive home from Lompoc. Access it by taking Ocean Avenue to the Surf Amtrak station.

The beach will be evacuated during a launch.

There is a protected nesting area for endangered Snowy Plovers at Surf, Wall, and Minuteman beaches. Rangers will be there to ticket violators who walk into the nesting area, from March 1 through September 30 . Nesting birds are so endangered that as few as 10 violations per month will result in total closure of the adjacent beach. This web page counts the tickets and shows how close the limit is to a number that would require beach closure, and may show scheduled beach closures for launches.

Vandenberg Base Tour

There is a monthly tour to the Space Missile and Heritage Center on the base, on the third Thursday of the month. A maximum of 30 people will be admitted, and you have to send your ID information no less than 10 days in advance in order to be checked out for admission to the base. Information is here.

Web Sites for Launch Viewers

SpaceFlightNow is a credible news site, and their Launch Schedulepage is essential for launch viewing. It’s accurate and kept up to date. Their twitter feed @SpaceFlightNow is essential as a real-time source of launch information.

A good source of SpaceX information, but a site you must be careful with, is the Reddit /r/spacex group. Read the site if you wish, but I recommend that you refrain from posting to it. It often has great information, is frequented by people who actually understand the math and physics and some who are rocketry professionals, and you can learn a lot about rockets and SpaceX in general.  Sounds great so far, but this is ruined for participants because the community is immature and takes Elon fannishness to excess, and the moderators can show their lack of professional training in journalism.

There is also a SpaceX group on Facebook, which I don’t have personal experience with.

Amateur Radio for Launch Fans

There used to be a ham repeater linked network for viewing launches, Brian has a 10-year-old page on it. Someone told me that the base had asked the hams to desist, but I have no confirmation and it sounds somewhat unlikely. In general the government and FCC encourage hams to put NASA launches on the air, there are even special FCC rules to permit it.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the white substance I see in satellite photos of the Lompoc area? I thought it was too warm to snow there?

The white substance is diatomaceous earth. It’s the  fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of hard-shelled algae. The land where it is found was once sea bottom. It is mined in Lompoc, and made into toothpaste, scouring powder, water filters, and many other things.

Write To Me

Errors and suggestions? Pre-launch party? Write to bruce at perens dot com.

Bruce Perens K6BP