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Delta 4 launch from SLC-6
A Delta 4 lifts off from SLC-6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on June 27. (credit: US Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Quinton Russ)

Curses and myths

On June 27 a Delta 4 rocket blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s infamous “Slick-6” launch pad carrying a classified satellite to orbit and—if you believe in silly superstitions—finally broke the “curse of Slick-6.” (In late 1999 a small Athena rocket launched from the facility, marking the first successful launch from Slick-6.)

Slick-6 is the slang term for Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6), the largest launch site on Vandenberg and easily the least used. According to local (white man’s) legend, it was also cursed by the Chumash Indians. However, great amounts of misinformation and, to be sure, cultural insensitivity, have surrounded SLC-6 over the years.

According to a rumor, when construction first started on the facility in the 1960s, construction workers unearthed an “Indian burial ground” with human remains at the site. But there is a fundamental problem with the story: no human remains or archeological sites were found during the construction of SLC-6.

Slick-6 was first developed for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program in the 1960s. It was a massive project and the Air Force expanded Vandenberg significantly in order to build it, acquiring the large Sudden Ranch to the south of the main base. That ranch is still used for herding cattle, who are attended to by prisoners from the nearby penitentiary. But SLC-6 was shut down incomplete when the MOL project—behind schedule and over-budget—was canceled in 1969. The cancellation enraged certain members of Congress at the same time that it delighted Air Force program managers who benefited from the funds that it freed up for their own projects. A special entreaty to Congress enabled the Air Force to complete the facility to enable its future use for Titan rocket launches.

The Air Force, though, already had extensive Titan facilities at SLC-4 to the north, and did not require this extra capability, so SLC-6 sat in mothballs into the 1970s. At the time, the Air Force developed plans to launch Space Shuttle missions out of Vandenberg, and soon selected SLC-6 as the launch complex. The Air Force then began an expensive project to build a shuttle launch pad and support infrastructure. This project ran into problems as construction progressed. Costs mounted, schedules slipped, and tempers rose.

At some point a rumor blossomed that SLC-6 was “cursed” by the local Chumash Indian tribe. According to this rumor, when construction first started on the facility in the 1960s, construction workers unearthed an “Indian burial ground” with human remains at the site. The Indians protested, but the construction continued, so the Indians cursed the site.

This story sounds somewhat like the plot to the 1982 movie Poltergeist, and borrows from a longstanding cliché about white men building on Indian burial grounds. But there is a fundamental problem with the story: no human remains or archeological sites were found during the construction of SLC-6. Or, to be more accurate, nobody has produced evidence today that such a thing happened in the past. Pretty much all we have are the rumors.

The “curse” story has been a source of friction between the Chumash and the Air Force for a long time.

Because the “curse” is a rumor—folklore—and has been orally transmitted for many years, it is hard to find any records related to it. A Lexis-Nexis search of media records for the past 30 years turned up no examples of printed articles referring to a “curse.” During my late 1990s visit to Vandenberg I perused hundreds of back issues from the 1970s and 1980s of the Lompoc Record, the newspaper for the largest nearby town, Lompoc, which is located only a few miles outside the Vanbenberg Gate. I found no references to a “curse” at SLC-6. One of the only written records of the “curse” story can be attributed to a humorous article written for Florida Today in 1999 by Roger Guillemette. Guillemette visited Vandenberg and talked to several people who told him about the alleged curse. But if the Air Force had found an archeological site at SLC-6 and if the Indians had protested it, one would expect some kind of written record from the 1960s or 1970s. None has been found so far.

The “curse” story has been a source of friction between the Chumash and the Air Force for a long time. In the late 1990s I visited Vandenberg to conduct research and one of the people I talked to was the base’s cultural resources manager, who is responsible for protecting and overseeing the various cultural sites on the base. According to him, although other historical Chumash archeological sites are located around the base, no “Indian burial ground” was ever dug up at SLC-6. There are other Indian sites located at various spots on the vast Air Force facility, including one of the oldest known settlement locations in North America.

As the cultural resources manager explained, the “burial ground” aspect of the story undoubtedly stems from the fact that SLC-6 is located on a portion of the coast that many of the Chumash consider sacred. It is part of what their religion refers to as “the Western Gate,” which is an area of the coast that the souls of the deceased pass through on their way to the afterlife. To the Chumash, the whole area is sacred, and government construction there was an affront to their religious beliefs.

Although there are apparently no printed records indicating when the “curse” story first originated, it most likely started during the 1970s, a period of major Indian activism and occasional protests about construction at Vandenberg. Cultural activism during the 1960s had spread from one group to another—the African-American civil rights movement that started early in the decade had inspired other groups to protest their treatment by mainstream, white, society. Cesar Chavez led the Hispanic rights movement, and Indian activism emerged as well. By the late 1960s the American Indian Movement (AIM) staged its most dramatic protest, seizing Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. In 1972 and 1973 standoffs between AIM members and the federal government further enflamed passions. Along the central coast of California, Indian activism arose over plans to develop Point Conception, a part of the coast that juts out into the Pacific between Santa Barbara and Vandenberg. In particular, plans to develop a terminal for offloading liquified natural gas from tankers offshore offended Chumash Indians who believed that section of the coast to be part of the Western Gate. During the 1980s there were numerous protests about the Point Conception proposal, and these occasionally spilled over to include the shuttle launch facility construction at SLC-6. Naturally it was harder for protesters to get onto the Air Force facility, so frequently the protests took the form of complaints delivered to the Vandenberg base commander, although most of their attention was focused on Point Conception.

As for the “curse” itself, there is no evidence that any member of several Chumash groups ever uttered anything about the Air Force facility that could be considered a curse. Instead, according to Vandenberg’s cultural resources officer, this is most likely a white man’s invention, an effort to find some kind of scapegoat for what are in reality common human (and government) failings. To paraphrase what he said, at some point, after the protests and the construction problems at the site, somebody working on it probably suggested that the Chumash had cursed it. Of course, plenty of military space projects run over budget and fall behind schedule, but it is usually harder to blame their problems on the Indians. The Chumash protests about Air Force construction gave the locals somebody to blame.

Instead, this is most likely a white man’s invention, an effort to find some kind of scapegoat for what are in reality common human (and government) failings.

The Chumash already believe that the Spaniards and then the Americans took their land in California, and like so much Native American history, their history is paved with blood and tears and broken promises. Even without this legacy, it is easy to understand why they would be offended by such a story—how would a Protestant minister respond to claims that his religion was responsible for “cursing” some government facility? Certainly there is no shortage of religious insults delivered by culturally insensitive persons around the world: witness various complaints about Christian crosses erected on the gravesites of Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

The shuttle launch facility at SLC-6 was mothballed in 1986 before it was completed. The Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office decided to abandon plans to use the shuttle after the Challenger disaster and so SLC-6 was unnecessary. It sat abandoned for a decade before portions of the site were used for several small rocket launches in the 1990s. These met with failure, and the rumor of the “curse” grew, passed on orally among people who worked at Vandenberg.

Eventually, someone who worked for one of the contractors at the launch site decided to hire a local Chumash religious representative and “remove the curse” from SLC-6. When I talked to the base’s cultural resources manager a few years after this was reported to have happened, he confirmed that it had indeed occurred, and that it had actually created problems for the Air Force. The base leadership had tried to develop good relations with the Chumash, and then the contractor—whom he would not name—had gone off and done something culturally insensitive that had offended many of the Indians.

Unfortunately, to date nobody has tried to talk to the local Chumash groups to get their opinions of the Vandenberg base and how it has affected them. Perhaps in the future somebody will try to get their side of the story, relegating silly, and insensitive rumors of curses to the past.


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