OCT 23rd Titan IV Launch

Brian Webb (102670.1206@compuserve.com)
Sat, 25 Oct 1997 21:22:36 -0400

                             October 23rd Titan IV Launch

    I was probably as close to the Vandenberg AFB Titan IV launch that you could
    get and still have a clear sky.

    On Thursday morning I printed out the Terminal Aerodrome Forecast (TAF) for
    Vandenberg. What I saw was so typical for Vandenberg: A layer of clouds 700
    feet above the ground was predicted at launch time. Although I was welcome
    to view the launch from the on-base press site, I decided to avoid the Van-
    denberg area. Meanwhile, the TAF for Santa Barbara Airport forecasted few to
    no clouds. I called an aviation weather forecaster at the National Weather
    Service and asked if low clouds were present between Vandenberg and Santa
    Barbara at launch time, how high would the cloud tops be. His estimate was
    4,000 to 5,000 feet. He also said that there was a general clearing trend.

    At 15:00 PDT (22:00 UTC) Thursday afternoon, I looked at the high resolution
    (1 X 1 km) weather satellite image for southern California. The coast from
    Vandenberg to north to San Luis Obispo was cloudy. However, the coastal area
    of Santa Barbara County was clear.

    I left work at 15:45 (22:45 UTC) and headed for Santa Ynez Peak, a 4,200
    foot high mountain about 20 miles from Vandenberg. The sky was quite cloudy
    in Ventura County, but the further towards the northwest I drove, the clear-
    er it became. The coast between north Santa Barbara and Refugio State Beach
    was clear. 
    
    When I arrived at the peak at 17:50 (00:50) The areas to either side of the
    mountain range were clear, but a mountain wave cloud covered most of the
    mountain range. My location was above the cloud sheet, but only by about 10
    feet! This was just too risky for me.
    
    From this excellent vantage point I could see that the area between north
    Santa Barbara and Refugio was clear. I reported the current weather condi-
    tions to other space enthusiasts via amateur radio and began the dangerous
    drive down Santa Ynez Peak to the coast.

    After a lot of driving around, I found a good viewing area on the west
    side of highway 101 about 1 mile south of Refugio State Beach. I passed on
    my new location via ham radio. Within 30 minutes I had been joined by sever-
    al fellow hams. At 19:20 PDT (02:20 UTC) I called Vandenberg and learned 
    that were were at T-13 minutes and counting.

    And there we were: several space enthusiasts standing in the dark. On the
    other side of nearby mountain range, 54 km away, was the SLC-4E and the
    Titan IV.

    At 19:32 (02:32 UTC), the sky behind the mountains gradually began to glow
    yellow. The glow gradually grew brighter and brighter. In a scene that re-
    minds me of the movie "Close Encounters", rays of light and shadows appeared
    and began to move. There was something behind the mountains and it was very
    bright.

    A very bright yellow ball of light appeared and quickly climbed higher and
    higher. As it climbed, the flame grew longer. The Titan IV was quite a sight
    as it crossed the night sky. After about a minute, I saw a bright yellow
    flash as small rockets ignited to push the solid motors away from the core
    vehicle.

    When the solid motors were jettisoned, I saw a glowing red dot fall away
    from the core vehicle. One of my friends was looking through binoculars and
    saw two red rings falling away. These were apparently the red hot nozzles of
    the solid motors. The core vehicle continued on. It looked like a bright
    white star. As it moved down range, it gradually grew dimmer and finally
    disappeared.

    After the launch, our group drove to Woody's BBQ in Santa Barbara and en-
    joyed a good meal and each other's company. A fine ending to an interesting
    evening.