The best spots to watch a rocket launch at Vandenberg AFB, California

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Atlas V long exposure. Photo from spaceflightnow.com.

Last night, 2010-Sep-20, at 9:03pm PDT, an Atlas V rocket was launched from Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. I watched the launch 14 kilometers away from the launch pad, from a publicly accessible abandoned road: Camellia Ln, Vandenberg AFB, Santa Barbara, CA 93437. The experience was almost magical: the rocket silently lifted off, and majestically rose towards the sky. Only about half a minute later did the roar of the engines reach us.

Watching a rocket launch is an experience I would definitely like to have again, and I hope this post will help you enjoy it as well.

Note

The information in this post is rather old. I haven't done any rocket watching since I wrote it 2010, and I don't know anything about current conditions. All I know about the topic is in this post.

Photos

Note that Vandenberg Air Force Base is a military facility, and it's not easy to get close to the launch. You can though pay really close attention. This is why I recommend fully taking it in and not bothering trying to take pictures or recording the launch. There will be professional photographs and videos online. For example, here are official pictures of the launch I watched and the official video.

How to get a good look at the Vandenberg AFB rocket launches

  1. Check the Vandenberg AFB launch schedule for launch dates and pads. Note that the schedule is not always updated (for example, two days after the launch, the time still wasn't announced), so cross-check on Spaceflightnow for times of launches at Vandenberg. The most spectacular launches are those that take place shortly after sunset. The rocket will climb into sunlight and its exhaust plume will be beautifully illuminated. Two hours after sunset was almost too long for the plume to be illuminated, but I could still see some illumination (9:03pm, sunset at 7pm).

  2. While spacearchive.info has some good information about viewing launches, the viewing locations it lists are very far from AFB (50+ kilometers). Remember that at 16 kilometers away (10 miles), a ~60-meter rocket (Delta IV or Atlas V), will appear as small as a finger held at arm's length. Distance matters.

  3. Pick a viewing spot close to the launch pad. See in the schedule what launch pad the rocket or missile will be launched from. The AFB is quite large and its active launch pads are spread North-South over 16 kilometers. Refer to my map of Vandenberg AFB launch pads and viewing locations below.
    If you know of better spots to watch the launches from, or can confirm some on the map, please let me know.
    View Vandenberg AFB launch pads and viewing locations in a larger map

    One really good spot is Surf Beach, only 3 miles from SLC-4, where Space X is going to launch its a Falcon 9 FT rocket on January 14, 2017. It's also ~6 miles from SLC-6, and was a good spot for a large crowd to watch the Jan 20, 2011, Delta IV launch. There is an Amtrack station that lets you off right at the beach. The beach is open to anyone, not just military personnel.

  4. Just in case, do a web search for official launch parties or spots closer to these. The Air Force Base could organize paid launch events, but given the high likelihood of launches being cancelled or delayed, they probably don't want to bother.

  5. Follow the mission status updates at http://www.spaceflightnow.com for last-minute delays and suspenseful or cool announcements.

    Since Internet coverage is lacking in the area (at least for T-Mobile), it's best to sign up for Twitter updates delivered via SMS (you don't need to be a Twitter user), by sending a text message to 40404:

    follow @SpaceFlightNow
    

    Here were the status updates for this Atlas V launch:

8:24 p.m. local (11:24 p.m. EDT)
HOLD EXTENDED. Officials have announced to reporters that a sweep revealed a private vehicle at the SLC 8 pad south of the Atlas complex. That has prompted a launch hold to ensure no personnel are in the restricted area.

8:31 p.m. local (11:31 p.m. EDT)
NEW LAUNCH TIME. An additional five minutes have been inserted into this hold. That puts liftoff time at 8:41:30 p.m., if the clearance is granted.

8:35 p.m. local (11:35 p.m. EDT)
HOLD EXTENDED AGAIN. Five more minutes are being added to the hold, pushing liftoff to 8:46:30 p.m.

8:44 p.m. local (11:44 p.m. EDT)
HOLD EXTENDED AGAIN. Five more minutes added, pushing launch to no sooner than 8:56:30 p.m.

8:48 p.m. local (11:48 p.m. EDT)
NEW LAUNCH TIME. Officials have retargeted liftoff for 9:03:30 p.m.

8:50 p.m. local (11:50 p.m. EDT)
There are no technical problems being worked in the countdown. It's just a matter of ensuring the safety of all personnel before proceeding with the liftoff tonight.

8:53 p.m. local (11:53 p.m. EDT)
Officials are optimistic that this latest target launch time is going to happen. Atlas it aiming for 9:03:30 p.m.

8:55 p.m. local (11:55 p.m. EDT)
Now 8 minutes away from the scheduled launch time. The final readiness polls will be performed shortly.

8:56 p.m. local (11:56 p.m. EDT)
The launch team is being polled for a "go" or "no go" to proceed with the count.

8:57 p.m. local (11:57 p.m. EDT)
All systems are reported "go" to continue with the countdown for liftoff at 9:03:30 p.m.

8:57 p.m. local (11:57 p.m. EDT)
The launch director and the mission director each have given their approval to press onward with the countdown.

8:58:30 p.m. local (11:58:30 p.m. EDT)
Countdown clocks will resume in one minute.

8:59:30 p.m. local (11:59:30 p.m. EDT)
T-minus 4 minutes and counting. Clocks have resumed for the final minutes of tonight's countdown to launch the Atlas 5 rocket carrying a clandestine payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Liftoff is set to occur at 9:03:30 p.m. local.

8:59:40 p.m. local (11:59:40 p.m. EDT)
T-minus 3 minutes, 50 seconds. The ground pyrotechnics have been enabled.

9:00:30 p.m. local (12:00:30 a.m. EDT)
T-minus 3 minutes. The Atlas first stage liquid oxygen replenishment is being secured so the tank can be pressurized for launch.

9:01:00 p.m. local (12:01:00 a.m. EDT)
T-minus 2 minutes, 30 seconds. The first stage RP-1 kerosene fuel tank and the liquid oxygen have stepped up to proper flight pressure levels.

9:01:30 p.m. local (12:01:30 a.m. EDT)
T-minus 2 minutes. The Atlas first stage and Centaur upper stage are now switching from ground power to internal batteries.

9:01:35 p.m. local (12:01:35 a.m. EDT)
T-minus 1 minute, 55 seconds. The launch sequencer has been commanded to start.

9:01:40 p.m. local (12:01:40 a.m. EDT)
T-minus 1 minute, 50 seconds. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellant topping to the Centaur upper stage is being secured.

9:02:00 p.m. local (12:02:00 a.m. EDT)
T-minus 90 seconds. The safety system has been armed.

9:02:30 p.m. local (12:02:30 a.m. EDT)
T-minus 1 minute. Now 60 seconds from launch at America's western spaceport.

9:02:50 p.m. local (12:02:50 a.m. EDT)
T-minus 40 seconds. Centaur's liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks are stable at flight pressures.

9:03:10 p.m. local (12:03:10 a.m. EDT)
T-minus 20 seconds. "Go Atlas" and "Go Centaur" was just called by launch team during a final status check.

9:03:30 p.m. local (12:03:30 a.m. EDT)
LIFTOFF! Liftoff of the Atlas 5 rocket on the NROL-41 mission, launching a new reconnaissance satellite to oversee and protect the nation.

9:03:45 p.m. local (12:03:45 a.m. EDT)
T+plus 15 seconds. And the vehicle has cleared the tower at Space Launch Complex 3.

9:04:00 p.m. local (12:04:00 a.m. EDT)
T+plus 30 seconds. The RD-180 main engine is burning bright as the Atlas majestically rises into the evening sky.

9:04:30 p.m. local (12:04:30 a.m. EDT)
T+plus 60 seconds. One minute into the ascent.

9:04:50 p.m. local (12:04:50 a.m. EDT)
T+plus 80 seconds. The post-liftoff roll maneuver is complete, putting the rocket in the correct orientation for the flight downrange.

9:04:55 p.m. local (12:04:55 a.m. EDT)
T+plus 85 seconds. Mach 1 as the main engine fires at full throttle.

9:05:30 p.m. local (12:05:30 a.m. EDT)
T+plus 2 minutes. Atlas is looking good as the engine eases back to 95 percent throttle.

9:06:00 p.m. local (12:06:00 a.m. EDT)
T+plus 2 minutes, 30 seconds. The rocket now weighs half of what it did at liftoff.

9:06:30 p.m. local (12:06:30 a.m. EDT)
T+plus 3 minutes. RD-180 is performing well as the rocket climbs away from the planet on its south-southwesterly trajectory.

9:07:15 p.m. local (12:07:15 a.m. EDT)
T+plus 3 minutes, 45 seconds. The two-halves of the Atlas 5 rocket nose cone encapsulating the spacecraft have separated. Also jettisoned was the Forward Load Reactor, a two-piece deck that rings the Centaur stage to support the bulbous fairing during launch.

9:08 p.m. local (12:08 a.m. EDT)
The Atlas 5 has flown into a scheduled news blackout with jettison of the rocket's payload shroud. The veil of secrecy surrounding the launch of this classified satellite means no further information about the progress of the ascent nor release of the payload will be announced in real-time.

Watching the launch online

Launches are most likely broadcast online, though spaceflight.now and vandenberg.af.mil may not make the effort to link to them. Do a Google search for the name of the launch and "watch live", and look for the most recent (news) results. Newspapers such as the LA Times may forward the live video feed.

Feedback

I hope you found this post useful! Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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