Excitement builds in Lompoc as historic NASA launch nears

Posted at 7:08 PM, May 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-03 22:08:25-04

NASA’s next mission to Mars is just a couple of days away and the rocket will launch from the Central Coast’s own backyard.

This marks the first surface mission to the red planet in more than five years.

For the first time ever, the Lompoc Airport will open its runway for spectators early Saturday morning. With thousands of visitors expected, the City of Lompoc is gearing up for a busy weekend ahead.

"The idea that we’re going to launch a Mars lander from Vandenberg Air Force Base far exceeds, I would say, 95 percent of the launches that I had the privilege of working on or watching," said Don Buck, a retired Lockheed Martin engineer.

He says Saturday’s upcoming mission, InSight, is up there with the Titan IV launch back in 2005.

"But this particular launch, we’re going to do something that is very unique and it’s a one time opportunity for Vandenberg Air Force Base," explained Buck.

An Atlas V rocket will be carrying a rover dedicated to studying questions about the interior of Mars and the planet’s tectonic activity.

"This is huge for Lompoc in that it’s the first West Coast interplanetary launch to happen," said Amber Wilson, Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO & President.

The Chamber of Commerce believes the historic launch will bring in about 2,000 visitors from around the globe.

"I just think it’s exciting for Lompoc in that it brings people into the community so they can see what Lompoc has to offer and it’s really going to put us on the map," Wilson explained.

With an influx of tourists expected, hotels like the Hilton Garden Inn are filling up quickly.

"We are definitely sold out," said Gilda Cordova, Hilton Garden Inn Director of Operations and Explore Lompoc board member. "We still have people calling and looking to book through or being able to come for at least one of the nights."

It’s the talk of the town. Local students are expanding their knowledge about Mars ahead of takeoff thanks to NASA-hosted exhibits.

"I think it’s really cool and it’s definitely a learning experience for all of us here," said 8th grader Thea Tucay of St. Mary of the Assumption School.

"We got to touch the planets and we got to see how it is to, like, go up into Mars," added 7th grader Jaylee Cantu.

Back in town, some Lompoc residents are wearing their "Mission to Mars" pins, eager to witness history firsthand.

"We have the opportunity right now to put a vehicle on Mars. That has been a dream of the nation and of our industry for decades," Buck concluded.

The rocket is set to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 4:05 a.m. on Saturday. The gates at the airport will open at 2:30 a.m.

The other viewing site open to the public for the launch is St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Harris Grade Road. 

If the launch does not work out, the launch window extends through June 8.