Viewing SpaceX launches at Vandenberg SFB
I have been watching launches out of VSFB for the last twenty-five 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.
Update: As launches become more frequent, the crowds have been decreasing. Late night, mid-week launches have very few people. Return to base launches have a good amount of spectators.
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.
Sometimes the Ocean Ave area will be closed.
I spoke with the base and return to launch site missions will sometimes have W Ocean Ave be off limits. Crowds will be pushed back to Lompoc city limits. This is a range safety issue. You will have to watch from a park in Lompoc or one of the many roads surrounding Lompoc but not in the Lompoc valley on Ocean Ave.
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, VSFB 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 https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zG69-052IIEA.kmxhnoSqMjio&usp=sharing
Listening to communications:
The streams are delayed by about 25 seconds. You can use a regular radio scanner to listen to real-time launch traffic on frequency 386.3
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.
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.
Maybe bring a spotting scope:
Watching the rocket prepare to return to Earth on the last SpaceX launch out of VSFB 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 VSFB
The Central Coast gets a ton of persistent fog June through August. It's so notable we have names for the phenomena: May Gray, 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 very rare.
Overcast day launches are not worth viewing.
Overcast night launches are still worth viewing. The light from the rocket illuminates the entire overcast layer and makes it feel like morning.
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.
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.
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).
The 'Box Shop' at Pine & Hwy 1 (Lompoc's main street) also has a number of posters hanging up all over the store. The guy didn't mind my questions about his posters-- he was chatty.
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... http://www.hitchingpost1.com/) 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.
Update Jan 2021: Landing & Sonic Booms
On my first day at SpaceX in 2012 at VAFB I arrived at the pad and was greeted to a sign that said 'Launch and Landing Complex'. I remembered being shocked by the 'Landing' part but accepting that it would happen some day off in the future. In 2018 the first landing occured and it was incredible to see in person.
Here is what you need to know about landings-- there really isn't a lot. A few minutes after you lose sight of the booster you will start to see what looks like a pencil coming back to earth at a really incredible speed. It looks like it's off-track, but eventually it'll end up in the right place. It'll do an entry burn fairly high-up (above the clouds) then do a final landing burn a few thousand feet above the landing site.
The rocket will dissappear behind the hills and land in complete silence. After you've lost sight, count to 10. Two tremendous bangs and then the rumble of the landing burn.
I have captured the sound of launch and return on a high-quality mic from a location where there weren't any hollering fans: Soundcloud - SpaceX SAOCOM1A, Launch & Landing
In case you are wondering, it's startling but you don't need ear protection. Your dog will hate it.
Update Nov 2021: Debris From Failed Launch
The Firefly launch exploded at 50,000 feet. Upper winds brough the debris field a surprising distance to my home in Orcutt, CA. Debris could be found all over the town of Orcutt. Debris was found all the way out to the town of Gary. Parts of the rocket came out this far due to the carbon fiber construction of the vehicle. Worth noting for future audiences.