Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Polar Express

Tonight, Boeing finally launched the Delta IV rocket from the cursed SLC-6 launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The pad was built on a Native American graveyard and it was originally intended for launches of the aborted Titan 3M and Manned Orbiting Laboratory. However, it gained the greatest deal of its infamy for the aborted polar orbit missions of the space shuttle. In spite of all the money invested in refurbishing SLC-6 for the shuttle, there were legitimate fears about acoustic damage to the launch pad, damage to surrounding buildings, and the potential for hydrogen explosions. The Challenger disaster forced a greater reliance on expendible rockets, and the shuttle program was allowed to slink away.

While the pad has had successful launches (two Athenas in the late 90's,) the curse of the Chumash tribe still seemed to linger over the pad. Tonight, I'd have to say that the Boeing-Air Force team took a giant leap towards making SLC-6 productive.

During the O'Keefe days when the Delta and Atlas were considered for launching the CEV, the thought occurred to me that the Delta IV at SLC-6 and Atlas V at SLC-3E could launch a manned CEV into polar orbit. It would certainly be unique, as no human has ever gone to a polar or other highly-inclined orbit (such as sun-sync) before.

Of course, just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done. Manned Orbiting Laboratory was supposed to be a manned satellite for earth observation; this task was better suited to an unmanned satellite. The shuttle was supposed to deploy satellites into highly-inclined orbits, but this task was just as easily given to unmanned Titan rockets.

Highly-inclined orbits don't have any forseeable benefits over easterly, low-inclination orbits for manned spaceflight. In fact, they have two big disadvantages. First, the rocket doesn't get the same boost from the earth's rotation that it would during a low-inclination launch. Second, the procession of the earth underneath the orbit track will take the spacecraft away from the launch site. For the Gemini-based MOL, it wasn't a problem because Gemini had to land in the water anyway. For the space shuttle, the orbiter was designed with large wings that would endow it with the cross-range to reach California if it were to re-enter after its first orbit. Of course, the Vandenberg shuttle pad was mothballed, and the orbiter was stuck with wings that were too big for the missions it would eventually perform.

[EDIT 3 July 2006] Dwayne Day, space historian extraordinaire, explains that there was no Chumash burial ground discovered at SLC-6. In spite of this, SLC-6 still stands on ground regarded as sacred by the Chumash, and represents a sore spot with the tribe.