With the lights low, on a clear night, anybody in a 30-mile radius of Lompoc, Calif., can witness the miracle of rocket science, spearing the wee-hour sky with white-hot intensity, thrusting up, then over and out, high across the Pacific Ocean.
One July night several years ago, camped illegally on a remote beach of Vandenberg Air Force Base (Welcome to Space Country), I saw my first missile-launch while rubbing my eyes, tentless and shivering next to rotting kelp below a crumbly shale bluff.
In deep sleep I heard the rocket’s muted rumble, an aural oddity blending with the south swell cracking off the reef I would surf come sunrise, risking military arrest. Coyotes howled at the thin, bright line arcing across black sky, augmenting the disturbance along that otherwise serene and ultimately high-tech coast.
I later learned that the missile was fired from a launch pad 25 miles north of my campsite. But where was that missile going, and why?
A week later, lunching in a sunny downtown bistro, I found a coffee-stained Santa Barbara News-Press dated from the day of the launch:
VANDENBERG AFB–An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was successfully launched from North Vandenberg at 1:03 a.m. PDT today.
The mission was part of the Force Development Evaluation Program, which tests the reliability and accuracy of the weapon system.
The missile’s two unarmed re-entry vehicles traveled approximately 4,200 miles in about 30 minutes, hitting pre-determined targets at the Kwajalein Missile Range in the western chain of the Marshall Islands.
That evening, I fished online and found a comprehensive Web site for the U.S. Army’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein, the world’s largest atoll, in the Marshall Islands, rented for $11 million annually by the U.S. for a very specific purpose: receiving ballistic missiles.
The Marshall Islands, in the middle of the equatorial Pacific, are a Micronesian republic of 29 atolls and five islands, nearly all of them inhabited and swell-blessed. As far as I knew, the only surfers there were some Americans who worked for the U.S. government. Intelligence about Marshallese surf potential was scant, limited mainly to what the expats surfed on Kwajalein and Majuro atolls.
Months after my Vandenberg camping trip, on a breezy, rainbowy morning, my friend Lance deposited me curbside at Honolulu International Airport, the Marshall Islands a five-hour flight away.
“Gotta be waves there, brah, Lance said before pulling away. “You might be the first to surf some crazy reef-pass wave.
Ultimately, wave-rich Kwajalein eluded me (“Sorry, sir, drawled an official from the U.S. Army Space & Missile Defense Command headquarters in Alabama, “but journalists just ain’t allowed.), yet I caught a fleeting glimpse of its surf when my flight, en route to Majuro, landed on Kwajalein to offload some Army personnel and government contractors.
Until 1958, Kwajalein was used to support America’s 11-year nuclear testing program, which, after 66 detonations, had ruined Bikini and Enewetak atolls, westernmost of the Marshalls, vaporizing various islands and irradiating natives. When 1963’s Limited Test Ban Treaty banished open-air nuclear testing, the U.S. established the Pacific Missile Range on Kwajalein Atoll.
Today, Kwajalein monitors satellites and is the blue-water “catcher’s mitt for measuring splashdown accuracy of rockets fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, another militarized fetch of armed guards, spooky white radar dishes, and, at times, world-class waves, which I never got to surf.
Never say never.