As a systems engineer for the Atlas 5 rocket program at Vandenberg Air Force Base, John Sigafoos has big responsibilities.
Like, really big — as in 8.5 million pounds and more than 230 feet.
The Lompoc resident who works for the rocket’s manufacturer, United Launch Alliance, oversees several different systems critical for launches to happen.
Among his biggest responsibilities at Space Launch Complex-3 East on South Base is the behemoth mobile service tower that shelters the rocket — and its work crew — prior to blastoff.
He also oversees the acoustic suppression water system and the huge crane inside the mobile service tower.
“It’s never a dull moment, let me tell you. It’s just always something different every day. You don’t even look at the clock,” said Sigafoos, who has worked 25 years at Vandenberg, combining his military and contractor stints.
His role also includes coordinating with counterparts at ULA sites in Denver and Cape Canaveral.
“I like my job because it has a wide variety of activities. I get involved in a lot of different things and am able to support a lot of different operations,” Sigafoos said.
Launch day can be really stressful — he admits feeling nerves — but he says the key is doing the preparations beforehand to ensure smooth operations.
“A lot of the hard work is leading up to the big op,” he said.
On launch day, scheduled for Tuesday for the latest mission, Sigafoos is among the last people to leave the launch pad, departing after the mobile service tower has been rolled some 250 feet away from the Atlas 5 and properly secured.
With that task done, he immediately heads to the Remote Launch Control Center at the heart of Vandenberg to monitor other systems from afar.
His workday isn’t over once the rocket departs, though. Sigafoos and his team must return to the pad soon after launch to be sure their systems survived the blast unscathed.
And if the launch is delayed, that means a huge list of chores that must be completed and an even longer workday.
Aerospace is a career that was planted in him as a child, and after moving frequently in childhood, Sigafoos has enjoyed putting down roots. Living on the Central Coast, he and Lynn, his wife of 30 years, raised three children, now adults. Lynn works at Melville Winery off Highway 246.
The son of a Navy test pilot, Sigafoos grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, catching the excitement of aviation and aerospace amid the space race.
“It’s just captivated me. It was just amazing to me at the time and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.
With a low number in the military draft, he joined Air Force ROTC at Georgia Tech and studied aerospace engineering.
“In my Air Force career I started off with Titan and ended up with Titan,” he said.
In 1972 he was assigned as a Titan 2 ICBM crew member and was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
Later, he worked Minuteman 3 systems and ICBM programs before landing at Vandenberg as a test controller for the space shuttle. However, he arrived shortly before the West Coast program’s cancellation and eventually moved to Titan 4 and 2 rocket programs at Space Launch Complex-4 East and West, seeing the inaugural flight of both space vehicles.
When he retired from the Air Force in 1992 as a major, he joined General Dynamics on the Atlas program and remained with the company through changes to Martin Marietta, Lockheed Martin and finally ULA.
While SLC-3 underwent heavy modifications to prepare for the Atlas 2AS program in the 1990s, Sigafoos worked as a project engineer with Bechtel, helping ensure the facility’s design met the needs of the rocket program.
The first Atlas 2AS from Vandenberg in 1999 carried NASA’s Terra satellite, designed to give Earth a checkup.
“That was probably my most exciting moment here,” said Sigafoos, noting that the satellite remains operational and even has its own website.
“I was thrilled to death ... That was a lot of fun,” he said, calling Atlas 2AS “just a beautiful rocket.”
Despite his longevity in the business, launch day still sparks excitement for Sigafoos, who sees it as the big payoff for workers.
“That’s probably the most exciting time for me, is launch day. When we move the service tower away, we see the rocket fully assembled for the first time and to just stand out there and look at it before you leave the pad, it’s an amazing sight.”
He added, “It’s a long day. It’s a fun day when it all works out. So many people participate and everything’s got to work, it’s amazing. It’s amazing how everything meshes together.”