Viewing SpaceX launches at Vandenberg AFB

Steve Jan 30 2017, 2:56PM

First launch out of VAFB.

I have watched every launch out of VAFB for the last three years and worked at SpaceX setting up SLC-4-- here are my tips for watching a launch in person.

Get there early

Get to your spot early. SpaceX launches have been getting very crowded an hour and a half before launch.  Weekend launches especially.  As a local, I always shoot for 30-60 minutes in advance to settle and listen to launch communications. After the launch it will take quite a while to exit the area-- up to 30-45 minutes to get past the first stop light into Lompoc.

Viewing Spots

The best launch experience for the vast majority of people is going to be on W Ocean Ave, heading as far west as you can go until the road is blocked. On the map it is marked as 'Closest Possible Viewing'. You will see spectators parking on both sides of the road. Your view will be obstructed by hills so you won't see the first two seconds of flight-- but you will get the closest possible view of the rocket in flight once it gets to about 200 feet. You will also get the most intense, chest pumping sound experience as you are only 4 miles away and the weather will likely be cool resulting in dense air.

The next best location is any of the farm roads on the nearby fields. This is the best option if you don't like crowds.  Even on the most crowded launches the fields have tons of space.  Note:  These fields grow the food that we all eat.  Fatal salmonella outbreaks originate from unclean activity in or near the fields.  Don't walk in them, don't let your dog walk in them, don't go to the bathroom anywhere near them.  

Another viewing location is Santa Lucia Canyon road which offers a partial pad view of SLC-4 (SpaceX) and a full view of SLC-3. This spot gets crowded quickly (can park about 100 cars) and only has limited viewing spots because of trees and shrubs. I don't recommend this spot for SpaceX launches.

Recently, VAFB has been opening 'The Hawks Nest' on Hwy 1.  It has finite parking and unless you get there really early (hours in advance) it will probably be full.  This does allow you to see the pad... but from very far away.

My last viewing spot is at a far-away tracking station on Firefighter Road. It's good for watching the north base launches (not this one) and listening to communication traffic which they sometimes pump over a loud-speaker. There is a radiation hazard due to high power equipment. Hazard areas are clearly marked.

There are other viewing spots closer to Lompoc near Harris Grade and a park, but I never go there and know nothing about them other than Harris Grade has extremely limited parking (30 cars) and no overflow.

Viewing Locations Map:

Listening to communications:

VAFB broadcasts launch communication traffic that can be picked up with a regular radio scanner. The frequency is 386.3 (I was also able to pick it up on 388.0 one time). You have to be within a few miles of the base. Your scanner might be offset a little, so if you don't hear anything try the nearby frequencies.

As of the Delta IV launch on Jan 12, 2018... you can still pick up launch traffic with a scanner. I have previously had trouble hearing SpaceX launch traffic on the scanner. So, your mileage may vary... but if it works, its the best way to listen.

For the launches I have listened to, when you tune in and it's broadcasting you will hear silence instead of static. This is useful for knowing if you are picking up the broadcast or not.

I personally have terrible cell connection when I'm way out watching the launch.

Maybe bring a spotting scope:

Watching the rocket prepare to return to Earth on the last SpaceX launch out of VAFB I used a spotting scope and could clearly see the rocket firing maneuvering thrusters a few minutes after launch. Perhaps you will be able to see the rocket maneuver for return...

Weather at VAFB

The Central Coast gets a ton of persistent fog June through August. It's so notable we have names for the phenomena: June Gloom, No-Sky-July and Fog-ust. So, during the summer months, be prepared to see nothing-- even if it's 3 in the afternoon.

The best launches to watch

The best launches to watch are any launch within an hour after sunset or an hour before sunrise. The sky is dark but anything high up will be outside the Earth's shadow and will light up in the night sky. This scenario was the reason a recent SpaceX launch created an enormous spectacle in the Southern California sky that was visible as far as Phoenix. Do not miss these, they are somewhat rare.


Trivia and Space Landmarks around Lompoc and Surrounding Areas

If you are driving all the way up and like space, you might as well see some of the space landmarks and history in the area.

A few hours before or after the launch you can drive out to Surf Beach and get the closest direct view of the SpaceX pad.

On your way to the beach there are some neat things.

What you can see of the base

First, you will go on the same road that rockets take on their way to the pad and can see how to road was altered to accommodate. Heading west on Ocean avenue to Surf Beach, as you are almost out to the beach you will see an active military gate into the base on your left and across from it on your right is another military gate. This gate on your right is the gate that rockets being shipped to their pad will come from. Notice how there is a road with a very wide gradual turn emerging from the gate. Notice how the telephone wire is twice as high as normal over the road at this gate... this is so that wire wont interfere with satellite payloads that travel underneath. The telephone poles will be raised at various points on this road for this reason. You will drive through a cut-out hill that has notches or terraces cut into the hill. These terraces were to provide room for the wings of the space shuttle as it is towed to SLC-6 for launch. VAFB had a space shuttle complex built but the Challenger disaster stopped the west coast shuttle program. The Enterprise was brought to VAFB and setup at SLC-6.

SLC6 in 1985 with Enterprise.

When you get to the crest of the hill above Surf Beach you can look north on the base. The biggest buildings you see are the buildings where they process payloads in clean rooms and get them ready for launches. The rocket launches out of the north side of the base, everything north of Ocean Ave, are almost all ICBM tests aside from the very rare NASA SLC2 launch (the tall blue structure on the horizon). They take a random ICBM from a silo in the Midwest, disarm it, bring it here then launch it to Kwaj. This happens about four times a year. The south side of the base is for satellite launches. Read the Wikipedia article on VAFB, it has a very long history especially with spy satellites. In fact, SLC-4 where the SpaceX launch is coming from was the epicenter of spy satellite activity from 1963 to 2005.


Remnants of Space Tourism

Lompoc (pronounced 'lom-poke') had an economic boom and a lot of hotel construction when the space shuttle complex was built. There was an anticipation of tons of tourists. The shuttle complex fell through and Lompoc has a lot of run down hotels and other scars as a result.


A neighborhood where every street is named after a rocket or astronomical object 

If you have time to kill, you can go visit a neighborhood where every street is named after a rocket or an astronomical object.  There is a park called Falcon Open Space Park at Falcon Dr & Scorpio Rd, for example.  Google Vandenberg Village-- it's just a few minutes north of Lompoc.  It's mildly entertaining.  Also, this spot is near the memorial for fallen astronauts.

Falcon and Scorpio street sign


A memorial for fallen astronauts

Ken Adam Park (northern border of Lompoc) has a small memorial for fallen astronauts of all nations.  The memorial is simple and mostly neglected.  It was an Eagle Scout project and consists of a few trees and some memorial plaques.  It takes a few minutes to find and a short walk from the parking at Ken Adam Park.


Murals & Launch Posters

Lompoc has a lot of murals if you walk around downtown at Ocean and H street. There are some space murals nearby. There is a mural about the Titan line of rockets at H street and Walnut. Its a great looking mural. The McDonald's up the street on H has a mural of a man on the moon.  The Better Beds and Furniture store on Ocean and I has a handful of launch posters hanging in the furniture showroom near the rear of the store (the store knows I posted this article and they are used to people coming in to look at the posters). 

Titan IV mural in downtown Lompoc.


Steak w/ Space

Your prize for reading this far is this tidbit: The coolest landmark is also a great, great place to eat. It's the Hitching Post steakhouse in Casmalia (not to be confused with the soulless touristy Hitching Post in Buellton). (HP Casmalia... It is open on every day 4:30PM until 9:30PM except for on Sunday from 4PM to 9PM. This place is great because after launches the crews would come to this restaurant to celebrate. You know how old bars have photos of friends and family all over? Well this old restaurant has pictures of old space launches all over. The bathroom is plastered in launch stickers from the crews of past launches. Also, the food is amazing and this place is WAY in the middle of no-where. Its the perfect stop to go with buddies after a trip out to the area-- and it is totally, totally off the beaten path. Reservations: (805) 937-6151.

Comments 14

Martin said... "Thank you, great info!"

Dec 21, 2017 01:17PM

TR said... "Thank you for this valuable resource!!!"

Sept 19, 2017 01:39PM

P. Garner said... "Thank you for the good information"

Sept 4, 2017 08:21PM

Phil said... "This is awesome, thanks...looking forward to Saturday's launch."

Feb 14 2018, 12:45AM

bubupm said... "Is there 144-148mhz range frequency for launch communications ( for folks that can't pick up 225-400Mhz on their radios). I found some information about 147 mhz but its rather old info"

Feb 15 2018, 7:21PM

#GBdisrupt said... "Have scoped the area and validated all of this info. I spoke with police on my way out from the beach and they said they do close the road off. From my perspective the best view will be in the middle of the farm fields. This will get you away from the hills a bit and a wide open area to see the rocket take off."

Feb 17 2018, 5:08PM

Steve said... "I have tried the 147 mhz stuff and haven't had any luck in the last six months. Someone I talked to said they have taken that repeater offline. "

Feb 19 2018, 8:11AM

Indyd said... " The photo showing the facility has an Shuttle mated up to SRB and External orange tank.. Why would that be ? Sorry if dumb question. "

Feb 24 2018, 5:44PM

Steve said... "The photo with the Shuttle is SLC 6...a different launch pad on the base. It was built to do Shuttle launches for the Air Force. The pictured Shuttle was used as a dry-run and was not intended to be launched."

Mar 30 2018, 10:22PM

bwann said... "Good call on the Hitching Post, had a steak there on a SpaceX-Paz scrub day. Amusingly I just watched a video on Youtube about Minuteman III tests to Kwajalein, at the end of the video they show people going to Hitching Post as tradition. There the team drank a "yard glass" of beer for every yard the RV missed the target. Somewhere around 6:43"

Apr 9 2018, 7:58PM

KW Cox said... " Back in the day, when there would be a launch mishap, They would refer to it as 'they're bombing Casmalia again' - and yes, the Hitchin' post does have great steaks - its about the only place I eat steaks at - other than the rib-eyes coming off of my Weber... Also, if you head North off of Ocean on Renwick about 1/2 mile - you get to a point where a saddle in the hills provides about 3/4 view of the rocket on SLC-3 - still can't see SLC-4 rockets until they launch though.... See everybody at the "Renwick Tailgate Party" "

Sep 28 2018, 3:48PM

Steve said... "Radio Frequencies for our reference:"

Oct 4 2018, 12:56AM

Robin said... " Have you seen the photo posted by JP Prichard @Sidetrakn , ? I bet you could tell us where it was taken. What is your guess? "

Oct 8 2018, 4:38PM

Steve said... "Robin, that is from the base which does not have public access. Point Sal, which is up north, would have a similar view but is shut down by the sheriff for launches. "

Oct 8 2018, 6:00PM