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Vandenberg Air Force Base
(Camp Cooke, Cooke Air Force Base)
by Jeffrey Geiger
Chief, Office of History, 30th Space Wing



Vandenberg Air Force Base is located on the Central Coast of California about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It is operated by the 30th Space Wing, and is the only military installation in the United States from which unmanned government and commercial satellites are launched into polar orbit and from which intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are launched toward the Kwajalein Atoll to verify weapon systems performance. Vandenberg's military service dates back to 1941, when known as Camp Cooke it served as an Army training facility for armored and infantry troops.

The German Blitzkrieg of World War II illustrated clearly that a new and more deadly dimension had been added to modern warfare. In response to this new threat, the U.S. Army sought improved training centers for the rapid development of its armored and infantry forces. Having conducted a survey of the Lompoc-Guadalupe-Santa Maria triangle, the Army purchased approximately 86,000 acres of land in March 1941. With its flat plateau, surrounding hills, numerous nearby canyons, and relative remoteness from populated areas, the Army was convinced that it had found the ideal training location.

Construction of the Army camp began in September 1941. Although camp construction continued well into 1942, troop training did not wait. The 5th Armored Division rolled into camp in February and March, and the steady roar of its tanks and artillery soon became part of the daily scene. From then until the end of the war, other armored and infantry divisions kept up the din before they left to put their well learned lessons to practice in combat.

Besides the 5th Division, the 6th, 11th, 13th, and 20th Armored Divisions, which were stationed at Cooke for varying periods during the war, the famed 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment also trained here as did an assortment of anti-aircraft artillery, combat engineer, and ordnance units. Over 400 separate and distinct outfits passed through Camp Cooke.

A maximum security army disciplinary barracks (now the United States Penitentiary at Lompoc) was constructed on post property. It was completed in 1946 to confine recalcitrant military prisoners from throughout the Army. When the main camp was inactivated in June 1946, the disciplinary barracks remained active and provided caretaker personnel. Practically all the camp was then leased for agriculture and grazing.

Camp Cooke was reactivated in August 1950 after the outbreak of the Korean War. The 13th and 20th Armored Divisions and the 40th, 44th, 86th, and 91st Infantry Divisions trained at Cooke. The camp remained open until February 1953 when it was again turned over to the disciplinary barrack "housekeepers." (The disciplinary barracks was transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Prisoners to house civilian offenders in August 1959.) Four years later the military would return to Camp Cooke, but this time the Air Force was here to stay.

With the advent of the missile age in the 1950s, the Air Force recommended transfer of Camp Cooke from the Army for use as a missile training base. Its remote location and proximity to the coast offered a perfect setting for safely launching intermediate range ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles (IRBMs/ICBMs) to targets in the Pacific Ocean. These same geographic features were also ideal for launching satellites into polar orbit without overflight of populated land masses during missile liftoff.

In November 1956, Secretary of Defense, Charles E. Wilson, directed the transfer of 64,000 acres of North Camp Cooke to the Air Force; two months later the first Air Force unit, the 6591st Support Squadron, was established at Cooke.

By the time the Air Force began ground breaking for the future missile base in May 1957, it had already activated at Cooke the 392d Air Base Group and simultaneously inactivated the 6591st Support Squadron on April 15, 1957. With the activation of the 704th Strategic Missile Wing (Atlas) at Cooke on 1 July, the 392d was assigned to the wing. In mid-July, the 1st Missile Division relocated from Los Angeles to Cooke AFB to supervise wing operations.

The buildup of men and equipment during this time was matched by a significant increase in the number of buildings going up on base. Missile facilities and launch complexes also appeared as tons of concrete and steel gradually transformed the landscape.

Meanwhile, in October 1957 Russia had launched its Sputnik satellite into orbit. The United States Air Force responded to Russian success by accelerating the development of its missile program. It also transferred management responsibilities for Cooke AFB from Air Research and Development Command (ARDC)to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) on January 1, 1958.

Along with the transfer, SAC acquired the three ARDC base organizations and responsibility for attaining initial operational capability (IOC) for the burgeoning U.S. missile force. The command was also directed to conduct training for missile launch crews.

Site activation, and research and development testing of ballistic missiles remained with ARDC. Space launches were to be conducted jointly by both commands. Although the mission at Cooke was now divided between ARDC and SAC, the two commands cultivated a close relationship that was to flourish for the next 35 years.

On October 4, 1958, Cooke AFB was renamed Vandenberg AFB in honor of the late General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, the Air Force's second Chief of Staff.

Renamed Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) on 1 April 1961 and redesignated Air Force Materiel Command after AFSC's merger with Air Force Logistics Command on 1 July 1992.

The first missile launch from Vandenberg AFB was a Thor IRBM on December 16, 1958. Two months later on February 28, 1959, the world's first polar orbiting satellite, Discoverer I, lifted into space from a Thor/Agena booster combination. The Atlas made its debut West Coast flight on September 9. The following month, equipped with a nuclear warhead, Vandenberg became the site of the first ICBM to be placed on alert in the United States.

In 1961, the Titan I entered the inventory at Vandenberg AFB, but a more advanced version with storable propellants, all inertial guidance, and in-silo launch capability--the Titan II--was already in the process of development. More importantly, the solid-propellant, three-stage Minuteman ICBM was under development and began flight tests at Vandenberg in September 1962.

In subsequent years, other launch vehicles followed including the Peacekeeper (MX) ICBM beginning in June 1983, the Titan IV space booster in March 1991, the air-launched Pegasus booster in April 1995, and most recently the Delta II commercial space booster in February 1996. By April 1996, 1,721 orbital and ballistic missiles had lifted off from Vandenberg AFB.

In addition, Vandeberg AFB was the sight of the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) and the Space Shuttle programs. Construction work for MOL began at Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) in March 1966. Three years later, in June 1969, the project was canceled, the victim of cost overruns, completion delays, and emerging new technologies.

After nearly a decade of abandonment, SLC-6 was reactivated and underwent an estimated $4 billion modification program in preparation for the Space Shuttle, beginning in January 1979. Persistent site technical problems, however, and a joint decision by the Air Force and NASA to consolidate Shuttle operations at Cape Canaveral in Florida, following the Challenger tragedy in 1986, resulted in the official termination of the Shuttle program at Vandenberg on December 26, 1989. Today, SLC-6 is used by commercial space launch firms.

For more information concerning the history of Vandenber AFB, CLICK HERE


Posted 1 June 2009


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