Until the Challenger accident, the US Air Force had been planning to use the Space Shuttle for a variety of missions, including the launch of spy satellites into polar orbits. Since launches to polar orbit are from Cape Canaveral are inefficient at best, the decision was made to launch polar orbit Shuttle Missions from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
To accomplish this, extensive support and launch facilities were required at Vandenberg, but Space Launch Complex-6 (SLC-6, also called “Slick Six”) was sitting unused. SLC-6 had originally been constructed in the 1960s for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program’s Titan III rockets. The MOL was cancelled in 1969 and the complex, incomplete, was mothballed. A decade later work began again and SLC-6 was completed to Shuttle specifications by 1985. That year, the testbed Shuttle Enterprise was used in a series of tests:
The first Vandenberg Shuttle launch was scheduled for late 1986. It was to be commanded by Robert Crippen, a MOL astronaut who had transferred to NASA after the MOL was cancelled.
However, the Challenger accident changed all that, and eventually the Air Force decided to withdraw from the Shuttle program and rely instead on expendable launchers. SLC-6 was once again mothballed. In 1991, SLC-6 was chosen for the Titan IV/Centaur program, but this, too, was cancelled. Four launches of the smallish Lockheed Martin Athena were made from the pad, but it was again basically unused until reconstruction began in 2000 for the Delta IV program. On June 27th, a serious rocket finally took to the sky from SLC-6. (More info at Chair Force Engineer), who also mentions the “Indian Burial Ground” legend which supposedly explains the pad’s bad luck.)
More Enterprise pics below the fold…
Pics from the Defense Visual Information Center.