Legionnaires watch rocket launch into space and back

On a hillside near Vandenberg Air Force Base a crowd of space enthusiasts, scientists, engineers and journalists roared with excitement, then fell silent as the Falcon 9 rocket blasted into space. The sunset mission created an artful sky visible throughout Southern California with each phase of the launch as the rocket moved up and through the atmosphere.

The Falcon 9 rocket was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, Calif., at 7:21 p.m. PT on Oct. 7, to deliver a satellite for Argentina. The Falcon 9, a product of SpaceX, is named for its nine rocket engines using liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene propellants to deliver cargo to space. The missions include supplying the International Space Station and putting satellites into orbit.

SpaceX is a private company that was started in 2002 with a mission to decrease the cost of space flight and colonize Mars. Sunday’s flight marked the 17th one for SpaceX this year.

The mission put a SAOCOM 1A satellite into orbit. This microwave observation satellite is the first of two, SAOCOM 1A and 1B, equipped with polarmetric synthetic aperture radar to help predict, monitor and mitigate natural disasters.

With the satellite deployed, the Falcon 9 returned as dramatically as it left replete with a sonic boom and flames just a few hundred meters from where it took off. Most remarkable for this particular launch is that part of the Falcon 9 returned to Vandenberg Air Force Base to be refurbished and reused. This is the first land recovery on the west coast. There have been now 30 successful booster recoveries accomplished by SpaceX in other parts of the country, including 11 at Cape Canaveral in Florida and 18 on ocean-going deck barges called drone ships.

"Sonic boom warning. This won't be subtle," SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted just before the launch. We are booming into a new phase of space exploration and occupation as technology has come very far since the spectacularly memorable walk on the moon all those years ago on July 20, 1969. “If you go back a few hundred years, what we take for granted today would seem like magic,” Musk said.

The people around Lompoc are so used to rocket launches that they all sit around comparing the number they have witnessed, many with numbers over 100. With the clear night sky of this particular launch it was visible far beyond those who knew what it was. In order to help squash some of the conspiracy theories, Legionnaire and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tweeted a photo of the rocket, "Nope, definitely not aliens. What you’re looking at is the first launch and landing of the @SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the West Coast."

Vandenberg Post 125 Adjutant Harley Santos Jr., has personally and professionally witnessed much of the growth in the aerospace industry, including watching the launch of Falcon 9. Santos enlisted in the Air Force and started as a propellant transport systems specialist and worked on the Atlas D missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The SM-65 Atlas was the first operational intercontinental ballistic missile developed by the United States and the first member of the Atlas rocket family.

“I started out in ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), with the Atlas D missile, working for the office of aerospace research, testing nose cone ablatives for our missiles,” he said. “From there I went on to the Titan II’s, which were silo born missiles, ICBM’s. I cross trained into aircraft avionics, spent a lot of time in aircraft avionics.”

Once Santos retired from the Air Force he worked for a major aerospace corporation and spent 20 years as an engineering manager for systems safety. Santos continues to use his expertise to support this community by being a member of The American Legion’s National Aerospace Committee, a subcommittee of the National Security Commission.

“What we do on the National Aerospace Committee is to try and ensure that there’s enough funding to ensure that the military, and in particular the Air Force and the air components of the other services, have enough funding to maintain their aircraft and their infrastructure,” Santos said. “As well as ensure that NASA has correct funding to continue on with its exploration of space.”

Santos still embodies the tangible love for space flight that envelops the entire area around Vandenberg Air Force Base. He stays informed of when the launches take place and can actually see them from his front porch. “I get up at 2 o’clock in the morning some mornings to watch a launch and its pretty nifty as the rocket is heading down south for a polar orbit,” Santos said.

There are a lot of veterans working at Vandenberg Air Force Base who have transitioned from the military and use their skill sets in the civilian sector. “A good example is there are a lot of people in propellants, oils and lubricants who have transitioned into fuel systems out here on the base,” Santos said.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell is responsible for day-to-day operations and company growth and said SpaceX does not plan to slow down, and has in its sights on Mars.

“I hope to be doing hop tests next year with the second stage, the spaceship, and make an orbital flight in 2020,” she said. “We would like to put large cargo on the surface of the moon by 2022. And we have our eyes on the prize to send people to Mars in 2024.”