West Coast rocket launches

Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in 2016, I ended up stopping one night in Lompoc, California. I had driven for hours, was coming in late at night, and remember driving past the entrance to Vandenberg Air Force base before heading into Lompoc.

The next day I learned some of the history of the town, namely that nearby Vandenberg was once intended to be for the West Coast what Cape Canaveral was for the East Coast—a national launch site for the Space Shuttle program. It was consequently expected to become a tourist destination for those interested in watching us start to explore the next great frontier. However, the Challenger disaster resulted in the scuttling of the West Coast launch site. I thought of this when I read over the weekend that SpaceX successfully executed a vertical landing of its Falcon 9 rocket at Vandenberg for the first time:

On Sunday night, SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which is a couple of hours north of Los Angeles. While the company has landed several first stage boosters on a drone ship offshore from California, until now it has not attempted to land at a site along the coast. But now it has completed the “Landing Zone 4” facility and received the necessary federal approvals for rockets to make a vertical landing there.

For long time employees of the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company there must be some satisfaction in this. More than a decade ago, when SpaceX sought to begin launching its Falcon 1 rocket, the company asked the Air Force for permission to launch from Vandenberg. But the military and some of the companies using the facility to launch national security missions, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing, looked coolly upon the requests from SpaceX. Now SpaceX has built a landing zone on the former site of Space Launch Complex 4W, where Titan rockets built by Lockheed were previously launched.

This will be SpaceX’s 17th launch attempt this year, bringing the company close to tying its record-setting pace of 18 launches last year. With as many as half a dozen launch attempts left this year, SpaceX should easily surpass its 2017 total, barring a major accident.

That’s the first West Coast landing of a SpaceX reusable rocket.