John F. Kennedy visited the Vandenberg base for the missile launch



The Vandenberg Space Force Base near Lompoc has been a hub of activity for the past few weeks.

SpaceX celebrated the successful launch of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 51 Starlink satellites on September 13, while Firefly Aerospace’s first rocket launch ended in a flaming explosion on September 2.

Vandenberg has been the site of high-risk companies for decades.

President John F. Kennedy came to Vandenberg in March 1962 while the race for the moon was underway. Less than a year earlier, at a joint session of Congress, the president announced the bold goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safe to Earth” within the decade.

Until then, the United States had played the role of second banana ahead of the Soviet Union, which had launched the first satellite, the first dog and the first man into space.

While Kennedy, a Democrat, was in California, he paid a courtesy visit to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican. The leaders were seen together as a sign of bipartisan solidarity against the Soviets.

Although JFK appeared young and healthy in photos from his visit, we now know he suffered from Addison’s disease and chronic back pain.

Kennedy came to Vandenberg a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the closest to nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States.

America was over a year away from the first in a series of high-profile assassinations that would cause people to question institutions and rulers. Kennedy was killed in November 1963 and his brother, US Senator Robert Kennedy, was fatally injured in June 1968.

The man seen standing next to Kennedy in photos of President Vandenberg’s visit, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, has become one of the main architects of a disastrous US escalation in the Vietnam War in the service of the President Lyndon Johnson.

Telegram-Tribune City editor-in-chief John Sarber took a columnist’s approach to writing about the events of the day on March 24, 1962:

JFK looks like the role of the American leader

What did the president talk about during his rushed three-hour visit to Vandenberg Air Force Base yesterday?

We stood a few feet away from him most of the time and didn’t hear a word! He conferred only with the highest ranking officers, military and civilian.

He did not make any public statement of any kind.

But by his stance and his looks, we personally think Mr. Kennedy is the prototype of what a president should look like, if not his habit of wearing his hat in his hand.

He looks younger than you might imagine and he’s not as tall as we thought. He looked fit and healthy, but he looked tired towards the end of the tour. Dealing with 88,000 people in Berkeley earlier today had a delayed impact on his face.

Not once while following him has the President of the United States covered the haunting hair shock that identifies him so. It was part of her dignified attire, but was never out of place.

Right in her hand (was her hat) to let you know her dress was complete.

On the windswept Vandenberg airfield, we stayed 20 minutes waiting for the presidential party.

It was only then that we fully appreciated the rope installed to keep a short welcome group of 120 journalists at a safe distance.

We just grabbed the rope and hung on; otherwise we would have been in the air. And it was cold, very cold from a wind blowing from the ocean just a mile away.

The president’s plane landed at an incredibly slow speed for a large jet, an Air Force counterpart for the Boeing 707.

He drove slowly to a waiting motorized ramp, but then stopped for almost 10 minutes to await the arrival of a plane carrying the press.

When the other plane landed, the President’s pilot then quickly swung over to the landing pad.

Maybe the plane was the “Caroline”, but we couldn’t tell.

The only distinguishing marks proclaimed it “United States of America” in large letters.

Things unfolded very quickly and punctually for the next three hours, from the time the President entered the waiting black limousine flown from Washington for this purpose.

The entire rear seat dome was covered in glass, allowing Mr. Kennedy a full view from any angle of the vast 64,000 acres forming the Vandenberg complex and a view of the massive ensemble of porticoes, towers and of instrument sites on the hills of the pretty Lompoc valley.

Launch of the Atlas031
An undated sequence of photos of an Atlas missile launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base US Air Force To file

The landing of the presidential plane was a signal to start feeding the large Atlas-E missile, and the president only had to wait two minutes to see it take off with massive fire in its tail.

Even a president would have been impressed, remarked a member of the press who had suffered many unsuccessful “catches” and spent many frosty days on the icy dunes on thankless missions.

The presidential cavalcade was condensed to a minimum, only a dozen cars and three chartered buses carrying members of the press.

The formidable Vandenberg Aerospace Center had been declared closed to the public, and only carefully scanned official visitors were allowed on board.

But at designated points along the tour, the official family gathered to greet Mr. Kennedy: forming three-point groups.

Most of them were the children of the officers and men stationed on the base. The trailer was so short that they even cheered happily as the bus carrying Southern California journalists passed by.

1962 kennedy029
SPACE AGE ARSENAL… This Atlas family of pioneering space vehicles, built by Convair, will be presented during the “open house” for the public at Vandenberg AFB. Here, from left to right, the Atlas-Agena Atlas Able, Atlas D-ICBM, Atlas-Mercury and Atlas Centaur models. The base announced an open house in an article published on September 27, 1960. Convair photo To file

Yesterday, on the sidelines of the tight security at Vandenberg, a phone call to the base switchboard called: “If it’s not an official call, please do it again tomorrow”.

We saw Mr. Kennedy being presented with an honorary badge by the crew of the missile that successfully launched.

“Do you mean I have it just to watch?” The president remarked, accepting it.

When they start handing out badges just for the sake of watching, we think every member of the press who has withstood the winds and the weather in Vandenberg should have one. Maybe two.

And we still wonder why we were not allowed to enter the small room where the president entered the large hangar which was so well guarded?

Something atomic that we supposed!

They let us see everything else, but the little room with the gray door was top secret.

It couldn’t be the men’s lounge, because it was on the other side of the hangar. Where was it?

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David Middlecamp is a third generation photojournalist and Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black and white films now includes a pilot’s license from drone certified by the FAA. He also writes the historical column “Photos of the safe”.


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