Springboard to the Stars

Oct. 1, 1958

The outthrust jaw of California that juts west from Los Angeles to Point Conception and Point Arguella has a dimple at the point of its chin. And just above this dimple, 165 miles from the City of the Angels, a new breed of man with a new kind of mission is racing to project the shield of the Strategic Air Command into space.

On a lonely, gently mesa that slopes slowly to the sea (the site of Camp Cooke, where more than a half million GIs learned their combat trade in World War II and Korea), a riot of construction is under way, a “furor without panic,” as the Air Force builds its greatest missile base – Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Ringed by the Santa Rita, Casmalia, and Purismia Hills and the Santa Ynez Mountains and lying on a plateau between two flower-filled valleys, Burton Mesa today is crawling with earthmoving monsters that must seem mad indeed to the honey bees and mule deer whose home the area was.

Once this was the heart of the Mission country, where gentle Franciscan friars taught the Chumash Indians how to build with adobe and roof with red tile. Now there is little time for the enjoyment of the manifest beauties of the shell-and-sage scenery. Vandenberg AFB, named for second Air Force Chief of Staff, will become by the end of 1958 perhaps the free world’s newest, greatest springboard to the stars.

Its mission is simple: “To develop an initial operational capability for the intercontinental ballistic missile and to train Air Force crews for the ICBM and the IRBM.”

At Vandenberg the tempo is furioso. The statistics: size, 64,000 acres; capital investment, $75 million; cost of construction, $100 million. What are they building A vast Air Force base, complete with flying field and Capehart family housing (1,405 units under construction), rehabilitated barracks (converted from open-bay to two-man rooms, with motel refinements), the “furniture” of the spaceport: launch pads, blockhouses, guidance centers, fuel farms, powerplants, LOX (liquid oxygen) plants, and RIM (receipt, inspection, and maintenance) buildings.

Vandenberg will not be a research and development base (like Cape Canaveral), staffed by the scientists who create the missiles, but a training establishment and an operational base, where SAC-ready war teams will be assembled.

How did SAC get in the missile business Already possessing the highly trained force and the global facilities of the world’s most powerful bomber force, it was designated as the United States’ primary long-range offensive missile force on November 29, 1957, inheriting weapons capable of flashing 5,000 miles in scant minutes. With characteristic speed, the next day SAC announced the formation of the 1st Missile Division, incorporating under central control all strategic ballistic missiles.

How many men are at Vandenberg By the end of August more than 2,000 of the cream of SAC’s officers and airmen were hard at work, alongside a contingent of British missilemen, in training. By mid-1959, when Vandenberg will be at full strength, there will be more than 6,000 personnel, and other 1st Missile Division sites will be rounding into shape at Cheyenne, Spokane, Denver, and Omaha. The development of Vandenberg is unique in that training of crews is going on concurrently with the development of the “birds” the crews will fire into space. Actually, ATC (the Air Training Command) will handle individual training, and SAC will have the responsibility of crew training (with help, as needed, from the Air Research and Development Command’s Ballistic Missile Division – BMD).

When will Vandenberg get its first “birds”

Some are already there. An Atlas was brought in July 1 for use as a training missile and haunch-site compatibility unit. Six weeks later, the first Thor was delivered. The Atlas’ backup ICBM, the Titan, about a year behind the Atlas in development, will be brought in later. The Thor training unit, made up of experienced veterans of three years of Matador operation in Germany, is moving fast, and is expected to meet a tight deadline (before the end of 1958), when the British IRBM units, officers of which are now training at Vandenberg, must be in place in the United Kingdom.

Soon will come the first sky shot, and the Pacific calm will echo with increasing volleys into space. Several Thor pads with blockhouses are under construction. Six Atlas pads are set in two triangles with a blockhouse in the center of each triangle. The launching pads follow the line of the beach, each having an unobstructed lane of flight that will allow the booster units to fall into the ocean during training launches.

Each launch pad is, of course, a huge structure, built to contain terrific blast charges (with an equal and opposite reaction aimed at the bowels of the launch matrix). Each launcher contains 3,800 cubic yards of concrete and from 450,000 to 760,000 pounds of steel, depending on the missile. Each pad has a fabricated flame deflector (“flame bucket”) weighing forty-eight tons.

But what about the firing range over the water Will there be danger to surface vessels and air transports

Training will consist of both wet and dry static tests, as well as of actual launches. The latter will be made out over the new Pacific Missile Range. The Navy’s Point Arguella Missile Base, adjacent to Vandenberg on the south border, will share the range, with the Navy having responsibility for scoring the firings and making sure, before the launchings, that the sea and air lanes are clear. (“Chances of an accident,” even If the firings were uncontrolled, one officer commented, “are a billion to one, because the missiles are fired straight up at tremendous speeds – and descend at comparable velocities nearly straight down.”)

While the Thor complexes will only be training sites (the Thor, whose range is about 1,500 miles, will be deployed overseas), Atlas sites at Vandenberg will be able to draw an accurate bead on a wide belt of the northern half of the USSR.

With the completion of other continental US ICBM bases, it will be possible to cover all of Red Russia’s major targets with Atlas fixed-base missiles. The Bomarc missile will be used for defense of Vandenberg AFB itself.

Boss of SAC’s missile effort is lanky, slow-spoken Maj. Gen. David Wade, whose easy-going manner can be completely misleading. (A product of the LeMay school, he was Chief of Staff at SAC Headquarters before coming to Vandenberg to take over the 1st Missile Division. “Likes to talk, has a good sense of humor, but he’s a real driver,” his men say of him.) Actual training for missilemen will be conducted by Vandenberg’s 704th Strategic Missile Wing, under the command of a veteran pilot, Col. William S. Rader, who is credited with having urged SAC leaders to investigate the missile business years before the future of the ICBM became obvious.

The 704th has two training squadrons (the 392nd, IRBM-Thor, commanded by Col. Robert W. Christy; and the 394th, ICBM-Atlas, by Col. Allen W. Stephens) at Vandenberg, as well as the 704th Instrumentation Squadron (commanded by Col. John J. Easton, the latter programmed to be the fist operational, long-range missile unit in the Air Force. The 704th also has two Jupiter IRBM squadrons being trained by the army at Redstone Arsenal.

Problems Plenty! It’s a new base, struggling to accomplish its mission of getting into space – when it doesn’t even have its homes and roads in. Of its normal complement of officers and top-grade airmen, only a handful re in place, the others being away at school (Atlas people at Convair in San Diego; Thor people at Douglas’ Santa Monica plant; engine men at North American’s Rocketdyne Division at Canoga Park, Calif.; armament specialists at General Electric in Philadelphia; guidance control men at General Motors’ AC Spark Plug Division in Milwaukee; launch control directors at Cape Canaveral).

There are problem galore, with no fund of experience to call on, no textbooks to explore for guidance. But, if Vandenberg’s problems are manifold, no one at the California base thinks they’re insoluble.

First, of course, are the operational problems. How many launching pads Where Which direction do we fire What effect will the proximity of the San Andreas Fault (the crack that jolted San Francisco) have on installations Could a slight earthquake put Vandenberg out of business Can protection against quakes be designed How many troops will it take to service and maintain and fire Thor An Atlas A Titan A Jupiter Can large chunks of the missile airframes be flown in from the manufacturers in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules How long and how strong must the airstrip be How many Thor missiles to a squadron How many Atlas squadrons to a wing How soon after the first firing can a launch pad be made ready for a second blastoff

Just getting operational is a tremendous problem. By mid-summer the personnel buildup exceeded by far the work that could be done with the equipment on hand. This posed a tough problem for Vandenberg commanders. The men being sent in, some of the finest minds in SAC, were too sharp for mockup maneuvers. Yet, being top-notchers, their morale tended to drop like a plump bob if they sat idle. Vandenberg is over the hump on that problem, but for every one solved, a half dozen take its place.

The dilemma of finding family housing, so familiar in World War II, came up again.

The only two towns nearby are Lompoc (pronounced Lom-poke), eight miles southeast, population 6,665; and Santa Maria, twenty miles northeast, population something better than 15,000. Both are lovely, tranquil town, only now awakening to the realization that the jumping-off place for the planets that has been placed in their backyard will probably make both towns thriving cities in a few short years.

Already it is painful to see the pitifully inadequate number of salable and rentable housing units in the two towns. Each day a procession of heavy-laden automobiles with out-of-state licenses slowly canvasses each street, tired faces looking eagerly for a “for rent” or “for sale” sign. It is commonplace now to see families sleeping in their cars. Vandenberg commanders estimate that it will take 1,474 houses for military personnel and 2,058 for civilian technicians – in additions to on-base Capehart homes.

“Naturally a man can’t do good work,” one officer said, “when he’s got his family on his back. But once he’s got them bedded down – anywhere – the pressures off. He’s ready to dive in…”

Housing is a rough problem. But some good minds are chipping away at it. New homes are going up fast; each issue of the towns’ papers gives front-page news of new subdivisions and the progress of bond issues. SAC’s tried-and-true Dependents’ Assistance Program (headed up at Vandenberg by General Wade’s wife) is functioning at top speed. House trailers are one answer, and Vandenberg has a big camp already operating. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Thomas D. White, has ordered that adequate housing be given the same urgent priority as missile requirements. Vandenberg will get the Air Force’s first three- and four-bedroom homes for airmen’s families. At this time, everything possible is being done to make living conditions second to none for the missilemen.

From an operational standpoint alone, it is absolutely necessary to provide the best in the way of facilities and services for the missile people, for in this business moral is of the utmost concern. Someone has put it this way: “How does a guy keep his pride polishing a stovepipe?”

That, truly, is one of SAC’s big problems now that it is in the “Roman-candle industry.” There are many ramifications to the problem, perhaps the biggest being a corollary question; “SAC has always prided itself on readiness. It got that way with its bombers – and stayed that way – through a simulated combat. How can you do the same with missiles?”

True, the two things are tied together. SAC bomber missions are glamorous, grueling, and dangerous. But the dedication necessary eliminates the weak sisters and welds the survivors into tough, elite crews, combat ready with an unmatchable esprit.

Everyone agrees that boredom could be Vandenberg’s (and any other operational missile unit’s) top problem. The job could degenerate into just one of waiting…waiting, once the missiles themselves become perfected.

But, recognizing the problem is half the battle. There are many techniques that SAC can adopt or adapt from its bomb wings. There will be, of course, simulators for procedural and practice training.

“It won’t be like the fire station,” one SAC commander said. “There’ll be no checkers or cribbage.” Instead of interminable waiting periods in the isolated, underground blockhouses, there’ll be daily practice alerts (much the same as the bomber crews in Spain are geared to). And SAC will always be working to reduce, through hard, constant training, the time needed to “launch a bird.” At present, it takes hours, even days, for the countdown. At Vandenberg they’ll state working toward a fifteen-minute deadline, and when the fifteen-minute goal is accomplished, they’ll keep striving to attain even better launch capabilities.

In the good SAC tradition, there will be competitions and trophies. Operational teams stationed at sites where it is not possible to fire will be rotated to Vandenberg twice a year to get it some actual range practice.

The danger element, so necessary to the formation of any elite outfit, is, of course, always present. “These big tin cans aren’t loaded with cotton candy,” one missileman noted with a grin. “They’re wild beasts, and have to be treated accordingly.”

Just loading LOX can be a harrowing experience. “Spill a drop on your toe. No toe!”

The glamour element is really not much of a problem. “I tell my friends I’m working with space vehicles,” a Vandenberg colonel told me, “and their eyes get big and round. Sure it’s glamorous. Sure I enjoy shakin’ them up a bit. It’s kind of like when I used to take a cross-county home in 1939. You know, flying’s lost a lot since the open-cockpit days. Now here’s the same feeling all over again; the excitement and the danger add up to glamour.”

Smart SAC knows that glamour pays off in a number of ways. It helps build high morale, and it helps the command keep its top personnel. At present, it is estimated that the turnover of highly trained technicians leaving the service is penalizing the nation to the extent of nearly $2 billion a year. With the kind of training a SAC electronics expert gets, he can easily step across the street and get a job in civilian industry at an increase of several hundred dollars a month.

“But if the man can be imbued with a sense of mission, be proud of the job SAC is doing to protect the free world, and find a happy home,” says tall, handsome Col. Bob Christy the Thor training squadron commander, “he won’t go for that extra $200 a month. Even after twenty years he’ll want to stay. If he’s treated well, he’d rather stick where he knows the people, where his stripes and his experience give him prestige. It isn’t worth it to him to walk across the street into a new, cold world just for more money.”

There’s glamour in the garb these men will wear too. For the launch crews there are white coveralls, tailored just like the finest flying suit, with smart insignia and neatly lettered titles. And the units vie with each other in the painting of the colorful, construction-worker “hard-hats”.

But the item into which all of the pride of the corps is distilled is the official missileman badge. Long, slim, and silver, it is worn vertically on the left pocket of the class-A uniform, and is truly spectacular. It’s tough to come by, too; the missile people knew that, as a symbol of the profession, it had to have prestige similar to wings – an emblem for the world to see, which shows the wearer had to meet rigid training standards, study hard, and face calculated dangers before he became qualified. Consequently, certain hard rules were set down: Only people working in direct support of the “big birds” can wear the insignia (i.e., launch and guidance crews, maintenance personnel, commanders); a person must have been on an active crew for at least ninety days and have demonstrated his capability; a board of senior officers must ass on the granting of the rating; orders must be cut before it can be worn.

But even these answers tend to pose new problems: Will a missileman who is not wearing aircrew wings be allowed to command a missile squadron, wing, or division (Down through the years, Air Force custom and regulation have decreed that only pilots would command. Lately, this has been modified in SAC to allow observers to hold top command jobs.) Will pilots-turned-missilemen be allowed to maintain their aircraft ratings Will it be fair to continue allowing the pilot to draw flying pay while the missileman working beside him at a launch complex draws none

The question of command has been answered by a pilot-missileman, Lt. Col. William L. Anderson, who is Deputy Director of Personnel at Ballistic Missile Division, under ARDC. Writing in the Air University Quarterly Review, Colonel Anderson states his views: “A number of pilots have been assigned, but the total has been considerably less than expected. This does not mean that only a handful of pilot officers will be used in this program. It is simply that many early requirements for specialized officers were circumstantially filled from nonrated sources. Several command positions were filled from rated groups. Again this has not been by design. It is simply that there are more experienced commanders available from rated sources as a result of past assignment policies.”

“In general,” Colonel Anderson continues, “the question of whether an officer is rated or not is of little interest in the organization. It is just a case where both rated and nonrated talents find an abundance of opportunity. Any debate over rated qualifications is beside the point.”

“It is heartening to realize that the demands of the space age will shortly drown out this minuscule debate,” he concludes. “There is as much scope as all of them can handle, and the roles of the nonrated specialist and the pilot are going to become so interdependent, each so indispensable to the other, that grounds for argument will be inconsequential.”

The question of pilots (assigned as missilemen) retaining their ratings and collecting flying pay is something that will be a more pertinent problem in five years, senior officers at Vandenberg say. They cite the fact that they are getting some high-class brains who are in the sixteen- to eighteen-year service category. “We need these men, but if their flying pay were taken away, they’d leave.” If war comes this year, they say, it would be a bomber war. The missiles wouldn’t be ready. Consequently, the pilot types would probably be shifted back to their alternate skills, flying or commanding operational aircraft units – “driving or pushing.”

“Or a man might burn out in this business, might not be suited to its peculiarities, and would want to go back to the aircraft end of it. The bomber force is still the big business in SAC, and a B-47-, or B-52-trained man is invaluable. Let’s keep the rated men current till the missile is as dependable as the bomber. Then will be time enough to decide this problem.”

These aren’t the only problems Vandenberg missilemen have. One they hope won’t become too thorny is that of community relations – especially in the area of missile noise.

“By definition,” says Col. John Easton, commander of SAC’s first operational Atlas squadron, “a missile-launching is a controlled explosion that takes place over a rather extended period of time.” It remains to be seen if the noise level will be bothersome in nearby Lompoc, which sits in a low valley and may well be sheltered from the effects of the concussion. Colonel Easton noted that shock waves do odd things. Atmospheric conditions play their part, as do subterranean rock formations. Communities close by may be unaffected while those many miles away may get curious side effects.

Security is another problem at Vandenberg. Officials feel that it may be expecting too much to hope that the base’s natural isolation will daunt determined photographers, for there are too many natural points of vantage on the edges of the reservation where a shutterbug with a long-range lens can get good shots of the launching complexes. In the past, too, the military has had trouble with poachers who felt the Burton Mesa area was public domain when it came time to fill the deep-freeze with venison. But that will change now.

The entire 64,000 acres will be patrolled, and there will be both point and area security. There will be SAC’s famed sentry dogs, of course, as well as flying patrols of light planes. There will be no outsiders allowed near the launch complexes. Security will be tight, according to Colonel Bader, the wing commander. And if you’d like to get chewed up by a snarling shepherd at the same time you get shot from twenty directions, just try approaching a missile that’s in operational configuration.

The unofficial motto at Vandenberg is: “Press on – regardless!” With this motivation, things are getting done on Burton Mesa. Just as the hills and dunes are being bulldozed by strong men with strong machines, so are the big problems that face America’s spacemen being cut down to size.

But all problems somehow seem smaller in the lovely niche of our nation they call Santa Barbara County where flowers spill across the valleys fringed by great, gaunt eucalyptus sentries. Here, amid palms and the pepper trees, La Fiesta still begins with the full moon in August, polo is still a favorite sport, and the delightful fragrance in the air is a mixture of magnolia, poinsettia, and bougainvillea.

But soon after the official dedication of Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 4, a new sound, a new odor will be added.

In a letter to the writer of this article, author Martin Caidin, described the sensation as follows:

“At Cape Canaveral for the moon launching – the first crack at the Big Prize in the celestial sky… when that bird lifted, screaming into the sky in a perfect launch. I broke down and started to cry. I was astonished. This was before the explosion that tore her heart out. It was a perfect launch. All of a sudden things flashed through my mind. I swear I could see the first caveman staring up into the sky and wondering: 100,000 years of dreams and hopes leading up to this moment when Man gained the intellectual maturity to try. And there it was… but I didn’t feel foolish.

I came back with the greatest story I’ve ever had. Not of the technical stuff. The scenes of being underneath the giant… Three men standing in the flame-pit thirty minutes before T-Minus Zero… the bird above them creaking and groaning. Sheets of ice falling around them. Ghastly cobalt lights. Alongside them, that combustion chamber. The immensity of its power is terrifying… and I mean that work. To them (as I finally found the words) it’s being at the foot of an altar, standing at the doorway to a cathedral, the like of which men just don’t know, can’t know, and don’t comprehend. They tell me, making sure no one else is around to hear the words because they might laugh, that they are never closer to God….”

From Vandenberg Air Force Base, American’s new, big Springboard to the Stars, man, himself, may first enter deep space.

About the Author

Author Ed Mack Miller has been telling the airpower story for numerous years now, and many of his contributions have previously appeared in Air Force. An Air Force Reserve major, he is author of a book, Tales of a Flier’s Faith, published by Doubleday early this year. A jet-rated pilot, he has served as an instructor pilot for United Air Lines. Married, he has seven children. He flew as advance man with the Minute Man jet team demonstration during 1957.