Col. Gregory Wood, the vice commander of the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, has spent the past 25 years of his career working in and around the space launch industry and has just about seen it all.
Still, even he expressed excitement about NASA’s upcoming mission to Mars, which is set to be the first interplanetary launch ever from Vandenberg.
“That’s gonna be a big deal,” Wood said.
That launch, scheduled for May 5, was one of several imminent activities at VAFB that Wood revealed Wednesday afternoon during an annual joint luncheon at the base put on by the Lompoc and Santa Maria chambers of commerce.
During the event, which serves as an annual “State of the Base” ceremony, Wood also looked back on some of the highlights from the past year and thanked the surrounding communities — several Central Coast civic leaders and/or their representatives were present — for all their support.
The item generating the most buzz at the base, however, is NASA’s impending InSight Mission to Mars.
The InSight spacecraft, which aims to be the first to look deep beneath the Martian surface and study the planet's interior, arrived at VAFB on Feb. 28 from a Lockheed Martin facility in Denver.
Following Wednesday’s presentation, Wood said that the VAFB public affairs office is working with NASA and United Launch Alliance to coordinate how to accommodate the thousands of visitors that the base is anticipating just for that launch, which is tentatively planned to occur around 4 a.m.
“It should prove to be a real crowd-pleaser,” Wood said.
The launch is so highly anticipated that Interim Lompoc City Manager Teresa Gallavan, who was also at Wednesday’s luncheon, said during Tuesday night’s Lompoc City Council meeting that the city of Lompoc had already made plans to provide a watch-party venue for residents and guests.
“The city has partnered with Explore Lompoc and Jet Propulsion Labs, Lockheed Martin, ULA, NASA and the 30th Space Wing to provide a viewing area for the launch at the Lompoc Airport,” she told the Lompoc Council and community on Tuesday. “There will be a designated space there for people to go ahead and see that historic moment.”
During Wood’s presentation, he noted that the Mars mission was not the only momentous launch activity on the horizon at the base.
Wood said that SpaceX is still planning to bring its boost-back landings to actual land on the West Coast in the near future. The company already lands rocket boosters on land on the East Coast, but so far has only returned boosters to drone ships in the Pacific Ocean off the West Coast.
SpaceX is “marching a little closer and closer” to those land-based landings from VAFB, Wood said.
He also expressed excitement and optimism about the future of the space launch industry as a whole. There is a lot of competition within the rocket and spacecraft industries, he said, and VAFB is in prime position to serve as a major player in the field.
In fact, the reason that Wood led Wednesday's presentation was because Col. Michael Hough, the commander of the 30th Space Wing, was in Florida for strategic meetings related to VAFB's upcoming launch schedule.
Although Wood noted in his address that he doesn’t like to spend much time looking at the past, he took a few minutes Wednesday to talk about last year’s first-of-its-kind missile defense test from VAFB that he said will always stand out for him as he looks back on his career.
During the $244 million exercise, which took place May 30, military and Department of Defense personnel were able to intercept and destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, over the Pacific Ocean.
“We did something that had never been done before, and it was off of this coast,” Wood said, drawing applause from an audience of about 100 that filled a ballroom inside the on-base Pacific Coast Club.
Noting that the science behind a test of that magnitude is “truly phenomenal,” Wood said its impact extended around the globe.
“It doesn’t just send a message that our technology is ready and capable … but more importantly it sends a message to our allies and to the American public that we’ve got your back,” he said.
“That was truly a shot heard ’round the world,” he later added.
In another significant recent happening on the base, Wood said that the solar array farm located across Highway 1 southeast of VAFB’s Santa Maria gate was completed in January. He said that an official grand opening is planned for sometime in May, but that the operation is up and running.
The 180-acre farm, which is the largest in the Air Force, puts out about 22 megawatts, Wood said, accounting for about 35 percent of VAFB’s total power. The farm is expected to save the base about $1.75 million per year over the next 25 years, he said.
“That’s a huge opportunity and a great chance for the base to go green,” Wood said.
Wood wrapped up his presentation by pointing to some of the community-VAFB partnerships that he said are vital to the base's quality of life. These include Christmastime giveaways and events, military appreciation barbecues, parades and events like Wednesday’s joint luncheon.
“There’s just so much engagement,” he said, as he thanked everyone for their continual support.