Limited access ensures launch safety

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 11:34 p.m. PST Feb. 20, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Kyla Gifford/Released)

With Vandenberg’s primary mission of successfully reaching polar-orbit requiring a carefully coordinated effort between various organizations – safety is always paramount. Keeping this in mind, three days prior to a launch – outdoor recreational activities are restricted within close proximity to the launch complex. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kyla Gifford/Released)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- With Vandenberg's primary mission of successfully reaching polar-orbit requiring a carefully coordinated effort between various organizations - safety is always paramount.

Keeping this in mind, three days prior to a launch, outdoor recreational activities are restricted within close proximity to the launch complex. 

"Days before launch the safety office manages land area clearance, which includes sea, air, rail and land," said William Stark, 30th Space Wing safety and occupational health manager. "An area, defined by the impact limit line, is the area that the launch support team will ensure is clear of non-essential personnel and that essential personnel within that area are all accounted for in case there is an anomaly during the launch."

Due to the potential for unaware outdoorsmen to wander into restricted areas during recreational activities, 30th Security Forces Squadron and safety personnel attempt to mitigate risk by closing entire sections of land.

"Its another way of letting people know that outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and certain areas of the beaches, are going to be closed off during this period - mainly because we don't want people to be in an area where it would be hard to find them if they are inside the impact limit line," said Stark. "It is easy to be within the line, especially on north base, because you have a couple of beaches accessible to hikers and hunters."

In addition to recreational activities being temporarily suspended close to liftoff, several jobs are also put on hold until given the "all-clear".

"Even something as small as putting a shovel into the ground is prohibited because you may hit a cable that is bringing important launch data from a launch site," said Stark. "There are a lot of things that can't happen during this time."

Teamwork plays an integral role in successfully launching rockets and is one of the key components contributing to each launch being executed safely.

"Safety will do sweeps prior to the launch, looking for any equipment or people in the area," said Stark. "But we rely heavily on 30th SFS conservation personnel because they spend more time off the paved roads and know the terrain well."

Working with members of the safety office, security forces Airmen provide the "boots on the ground" to enforce area restrictions.

"Our job is to make sure no one is out in the restricted area before a launch," said Staff Sgt. Jesse Travis, 30th SFS conservation law enforcement officer. "When it hits 72 hours prior (to launch) we make sure that all the gates have signs up, and we start to patrol all the beaches and dirt roads. We keep tabs on everything that is going on in the area, but also look for odd or suspicious activity."

Considering Vandenberg's nearly 100,000 acres of wilderness, access to various types of all-terrain vehicles is an essential component to ensuring a safe perimeter.

"Since we are out on the terrain regularly we know all the back roads and have an idea of what is out of the ordinary," said Travis. "We try to hit every area and conduct a thorough sweep prior to the launch. If there are any 'finds' we report it to security forces, and if it is suspicious we contact Office of Special Investigations, just to be on the safe side."

With a firm grasp on their various roles during launch operations, the 30th SW maintains safety and success at all times.

"We don't want to miss anyone," said Stark. "The restricted outdoor activity signs are put out to let community members know where they will remain safe. These restrictions are just to protect non-essential personnel from being in an area that might become hazardous."