After completing the NROL-91 mission, ULA will begin to leave SLC-6 and consolidate operations on SLC-3.
WASHINGTON — A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 heavy rocket is scheduled to launch a National Reconnaissance Office mission Sept. 24 from Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California.
This will be the final launch of Delta 4 from the West Coast. ULA has a contract to launch two more missions on the Delta 4 Heavy in 2023 and 2024, but will fly them from Cape Canaveral, Florida, after which the vehicle will be retired.
The launch of NROL-91 marks the end of an era, Col. Chad Davis, director of the NRO Space Launch Office, told reporters on September 22. “I think bittersweet is absolutely the right word to use with that.”
After completing the NROL-91 mission, ULA plans to begin vacating the pad, known as Space Launch Complex-6. The company’s future vehicle, the Vulcan Centaur, will launch from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex-3, from which ULA currently flies its Atlas 5 rocket.
During a call with reporters, Col. Bryan Titus, deputy commander of the Delta 30 space launch at Vandenberg, said field officials are in active talks with launch companies to try to get a new tenant for SLC-6.
Space Launch Delta 30 is the Space Force unit that operates the Vandenberg range.
“I’m pretty sure it will be used,” Titus said of SLC-6. He declined to name potential tenants.
Most of the launches at Vandenberg today are carried out by SpaceX, which leases Space Launch Complex-4 for booster launches and landings.
Titus noted SLC-6’s storied past. It was originally built in the 1960s to launch the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory, which never flew, and was repurposed in the 1980s as a dedicated launch and landing site for military space shuttle missions. After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986, the Air Force suspended the site without even conducting a West Coast shuttle launch. It reactivated the site in the 1990s for a handful of Lockheed Martin Athena launches, eventually handing it over to the Delta 4 program. The SLC-6 runway has been used to land the Air Force’s X-37B reusable space plane. .
Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman reportedly considered reaching an agreement with ULA to use SLC-6 to launch homeland security missions if they had been selected for the Homeland Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract. But both were outclassed ULA and SpaceX in August 2020.
The notebook “has had many lives,” Titus said. “I think everyone at Vandenberg has a warm place in their hearts for that place, and we’ll make sure it continues to be used, but we don’t know exactly how,” he added. “There are plenty of other launch service providers that could find utility in that location. There is a lot of infrastructure there.”
Gary Wentz, vice president of government and commercial programs at ULA, said the company is preparing for the final West Coast launch of Atlas 5 from SLC-3 scheduled for November 1. That will be the Joint Polar Satellite System 2 polar-orbiting weather satellite, developed by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Once that mission is complete, the SLC-3 will be outfitted with new equipment in preparation for Vulcan, which is scheduled to begin flying in 2023.
He said that ULA did not see the need to maintain two launch pads on the West Coast. “From a business perspective, it was appropriate for us to use SLC-3 because there was so much in common between the Atlas and Vulcan systems.”