Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) is one of the two major U.S. space launch facilities. VAFB is located at Point Arguello, California, 240 km (150 mi) northwest of Los Angeles. VAFB was established as a facility for missile test launches as well as launches of military satellites to polar orbits. Throughout its history it has served as the site for most U.S. launches into polar orbit for military, civil, and in recent years, commercial customers. VAFB was the launch site of the world’s first satellite launched into polar orbit. The location of VAFB at 34.7°N, 120.6°W permits access to polar and other
high-inclination orbits launching to the south and southwest without overflying land.
Before World War II the site consisted of several Mexican land grant ranches. In May 1941 the land was acquired by the U.S. government and converted into a U.S. Army base named Camp Cooke in honor of Maj. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke. On 4 October 1958, Cooke AFB was renamed Vandenberg AFB in honor of the late Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the Air Force’s second chief of staff. On 8 May 1957, ground was broken to begin construction of the space launch and missile test facility. The first missile launched from VAFB was a Thor IRBM on 16 December 1958. Two months later, on 28 February 1959, the world’s first polar orbiting satellite, Discoverer I, was lifted into space aboard a Thor/Agena. Under the cover story of scientific research, Discoverer was actually the cover name for Corona, the first U.S. photo reconnaissance satellite program.
The climate year round is temperate, the base receives moderate rainfall, little snow, but daily fog. Summer temperatures can rise as high as 38°C (100°F), but more typically only to 24°C (75°F). Winter lows average 3°C (38°F), but have gone as low as 7°C (20°F). With 56 km (35 miles) of coastline, VAFB’s position at the end of one of the only major stretches of coastline running east to west in California allows launches to the south without overflying land. The spaceport area totals 400 km2 (150 mi2). Each vehicle type has its own processing and launch facilities. Space launch complexes are primarily located on South Base, where launch vehicles can fly due south, or even southeast to reach Molniya-type orbits at 63.4 deg inclination.
From the Delta and Taurus complexes on North Base, launch vehicles must fly to the southwest to avoid overflight of the South Base facilities, then perform a dogleg turn to a more southerly flight azimuth resulting in a modest performance reduction. Missile test sites are located on the far northern side of the base. These launches typically head west toward the Kwajalein Missile Range in the Pacific.
The spaceport is operated by the U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing. Military, civilian, and commercial space launches as well as missile test flights, occur regularly. The nearest communities are Lompoc, 11 km (7 mi) southeast, and Santa Maria, 27 km (17 mi) northeast. Approximately 130,000 people live in the towns and valleys nearby. Communication, medical care, transportation services, lodging, food, outdoor recreation, museums, and other amenities are all readily available. During the week, overnight package delivery is available from points within the continental United States.
The closest commercial airports are in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, California. Commuter flights are available from Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Santa Barbara to the Santa Maria Municipal Airport. Connections worldwide are available through the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Rental cars are available at all of the airports. Highways in the area and between VAFB and Los Angeles or San Francisco are paved, usually multilaned, and well maintained, although fog poses hazards.