With at least 10 rocket launches planned for 2016, as well as what could be the West Coast’s first-ever rocket landing, this year is shaping up to be one of Vandenberg Air Force Base’s most exciting in recent memory, according to 30th Space Wing Commander Col. J Christopher Moss.
Moss made that comment during a State of the Base presentation and luncheon Wednesday at VAFB’s Pacific Coast Club. The event was organized jointly by the Lompoc and Santa Maria chambers of commerce.
With an audience composed primarily of elected officials and other business and community leaders, Moss went over some of the base’s accomplishments of 2015 before enthusiastically looking at what lies ahead for the remainder of this year.
Among the plans for the coming months, he said, is a collaboration with SpaceX for VAFB to host the space flight company’s first West Coast flyback mission on land.
That mission will involve a SpaceX rocket boosting a satellite into orbit and then returning to earth, where it will attempt to land on the ground back at the base.
SpaceX was able to successfully land a rocket on land last year in Florida, but has failed three times since 2015 at landing on an ocean-based barge, including one such failure last month from VAFB.
“We are planning for that now and expect in 2016 to do our very first flyback mission here at Vandenberg,” Moss said, drawing applause from the audience. “This has the potential to really change the way we think about space lift.
"That is coming to us," he added, "and it’s going to take a lot of hard work by a lot of members of the team to make sure that happens successfully and safely.”
SpaceX is attempting to recover rockets postlaunch in an effort to cut down on launch costs.
Moss noted Wednesday that VAFB will be involved in other efforts to reduce launch expenses.
Currently, the 30th Space Wing has a team of airmen that uses computer software to monitor the flight paths of rockets and missiles that launch from the base.
That team is tasked with terminating those missions — by blowing up rockets or missiles — if something goes off-course and threatens public safety.
Beginning this year, the base will switch to an Automated Flight Safety System, in which computers will be used to make those determinations.
“The same software, the same algorithms, that allow us to know where that rocket is and to put it up on a screen can be used to tell that rocket itself when it’s off-course and, if it goes off-course, to blow itself up,” Moss said, noting that the cost savings are “good for the country.”
Among the launches scheduled for the base this year, in addition to the two launches that have already occurred, are four tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and three more launches of commercial satellites using SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) rockets.
Others include two satellite launches for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and one Orbital Sciences Corp. launch that will carry a satellite capable of producing high-definition video from space.
“2016 is shaping up to be another exciting year,” Moss said.
All of those launches will take place in bunches, because the base is slated to close down launch operations for six months this year while the launch systems are relocated into a new facility on base.
The base’s next launch is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 10. The time window has not yet been revealed for that launch, in which a Delta 4 rocket built by ULA is slated to carry a classified payload for the NRO.
Moss also announced Wednesday that the base will take ownership of Point Conception this year from the U.S. Coast Guard.
He said taking over that landmark, which is located at the westernmost tip of the southern Santa Barbara County coastline, will aid the base in launch preparations.
During his 45-minute presentation, Moss also highlighted some of the ways the base benefits from, or works with, the Lompoc and Santa Maria communities.
He said he was appreciative of those efforts, even if at least one of them last year did not go as planned.
Moss pointed out that he was honored last fall to be invited to Hancock College’s Military Appreciation Day football game against College of the Canyons.
At that game, Moss gave the Bulldogs a pregame pep talk and also performed the coin flip to start the game.
Only one of those went well, he said.
Hancock lost the game 42-24, leading Moss to acknowledge that his pregame speech was “woefully inadequate.”
“I will not be invited back to do that,” he said, drawing laughter.