Everybody identifies the Kennedy Space Center as the home of the US Space Shuttle program. Since the dawn of the 1980s we saw pictures of launch pad 39A and 39B, the massive Vehicle Assembly building, the Shuttle Landing Facility and the Crawler Transporters, all icons of KSC set amongst the lush backdrop of the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge.
What most people don’t know was that the Shuttle was supposed to, and almost had, a second home at Vandenberg AFB, on the coast of California. A miniaturized version of KSC was built here for the budding Air Force shuttle program. Looking at pictures of the facility conjures up images right out of the James Bond movie “Moonraker.” Any sane person would surely think it to be an implausible hollywood set, depicting an evil villain’s secret hideaway. But it was here, at SLC-6 that Discovery was going to be delivered to the USAF and fly into polar orbit, putting secret spy satellites and fantastical ”Star Wars” weapons platforms into space.
Originally designed as the launch pad for Titan II rockets that would support the 60′s equally as Bond-esque ”Manned Orbiting Laboratory,” basically a spy satellite operated by humans for extended periods in space, which was cancelled in 1969 as unmanned satellites could get the job done at a fraction of the cost. Later, as the Shuttle Program was being developed at a rapid pace, the then defunct Space Launch Center Six (nicknamed “Slick6″) was reborn into the military Space Shuttle’s new home. The site was fully completed at great cost, with the DoD going so far as having the aerodynamic test Shuttle, the Enterprise, mocked up on the pad with its external tank and booster stack to prove proper shuttle fitting. The first flight from SLC6 into polar orbit and by the USAF was to be made by Discovery on October 15th 1986.
On Januray 28th 1986 the Shuttle Challenger blew up on launch, grounding the shuttle program, leaving the Air Force and the DoD to re-think its reliance on the costly shuttle. SLC-6 was put on caretaker status and by 1989 the military shuttle program was cancelled.
Having the Shuttle never use SLC6 may have been a good thing in the long run, as later on numerous issues with sound suppression (the shuttle’s SRBs will rip the stack apart if a massive amount of water is not used to deaden the sound waves), launch pad design and even the Shuttle’s proximity to the service structures could have lead to disaster.
Since the cancellation of the DoD Shuttle, the sitewas used by multiple defense contractors, often times with terrible results. Finally, in 2006 the first massive Delta IV rocket was launched from SLC-6, and since then it has performed well launching big payloads into space and just recently launched the giant Delta IV Heavy successfully, which was in itself and awesome site to behold.
And that is the story of the miniature military Shuttle launch complex that never was!!