The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SLC-6 image
Satellite image of the large Space Launch Complex 6 facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (credit: Google Earth)

On the trail of “The Curse of Slick-6”

Bookmark and Share

My first introduction to the story of the “Curse of Slick-6” came from Roger Guillemette in the mid-1990s. Guillemette occasionally wrote about space launches and soon would become a regular contributor to and eventual editor for Florida Today’s Space Online. Roger had heard from locals near Vandenberg Air Force Base that there had been a rumor that the local Chumash Indians had “cursed” the large Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg.

According to Guillemette, at some point, presumably during the early 1980s construction problems, people on the base had started to claim that the Chumash had placed a curse on the facility because it was “built on an Indian burial ground.”

SLC-6, or “Slick-6” as it was known, was initially started in the 1960s as the launch site for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program’s Titan IIIM rocket. When MOL was canceled in 1969, construction on SLC-6 was halted. When the Air Force decided to launch space shuttles from Vandenberg, it designated SLC-6 as the launch site and began overhauling it in the early 1980s. Construction problems at SLC-6 became notorious, especially by summer 1984, when they touched off an Air Force investigation that found no major problems that could not be corrected. In December 1985, a worker fell to his death at SLC-6. After the Challenger accident came the revelation that during a shuttle launch, hydrogen could build up inside SLC-6’s flame trench and result in an explosion. The construction teams were developing a solution to that problem when the Air Force abruptly canceled all West Coast shuttle launches and shut down SLC-6. The Air Force had spent billions of dollars on the facility and never launched anything for over two and a half decades.

According to Guillemette, at some point, presumably during the early 1980s construction problems, people on the base had started to claim that the Chumash had placed a curse on the facility because it was “built on an Indian burial ground.” This was, of course, a rather convenient way for people to blame the Air Force’s problems on the Indians. Guillemette casually mentioned this in a couple of articles that he wrote for Spaceflight magazine in the 1990s and then in a lighthearted 1998 article for Space Online that attracted a lot of attention. Guillemette had tried to contact Chumash representatives, but had gotten nowhere.

In the early 2000s, I started doing some research on Vandenberg. I had started work on a book on the history of satellite reconnaissance during the Cold War and my goal was to write an engaging story that focused on the people as much as the technology. Vandenberg has been the primary site for launching American reconnaissance satellites and I wanted to make the place come alive in the same way that other historians and writers such as Tom Wolfe had made Cape Canaveral come alive when writing about the Mercury and Apollo astronauts. I knew somebody at Vandenberg and had visited there several times, essentially playing “space archeologist” by touring old launch sites. But during a visit in the early 2000s I arranged to speak to some base personnel in a more formal capacity.

The base public affairs officer was very accommodating and arranged for me to speak to a few of the operations people. They provided some unique insights, such as how some Vandenberg launches require the evacuation of the oil platforms off the coast, or how launch personnel adjust the trajectory of rockets to deal with wind, actually “flying” them on different trajectories to minimize wind drag pushing them off course. Someone else explained how the range safety people referred to “tracking and cracking” rockets if they went off course, and how they had to consider not only where rocket debris would fall, but also how toxic clouds would disperse in the wind. All of this was the kind of useful background information that I planned to weave into the book, along with details like just how much explosive was carried on an early Thor rocket to blow it to smithereens when something went wrong (a detail that I have not yet found.)

One of the people that I also met was Larry Spanne, who was then Vandenberg’s “cultural resources officer” responsible for dealing with the cultural sites on the base, which included things like ancient archeological ruins, gravesites, and cliff drawings. One of the oldest known archeological sites in North America, dating back over 10,000 years, is located on the base. Spanne’s job included overseeing archeological site surveys whenever somebody wanted to start construction on base, as well as protecting various sites, like Chumash cliff drawings, from vandals.

I asked Spanne about “the curse of Slick-6.” He provided some great background information. There was no “Indian burial ground” on the SLC-6 location. The entire area had been carefully surveyed numerous times prior to construction, and the government had a good sense of the locations of all the culturally significant sites on the base. That area of the coast, however, was known as the “Western Gate” to the Chumash, and it was essentially the pathway to the afterlife in their religion. He also said that there had Chumash protests about construction on the base during the late 1970s or early 1980s. These protests took the form of picketers outside of the Vandenberg main gate as well as Chumash leaders visiting the base commander. But the protests were essentially echoes of earlier protests the Chumash had staged in 1978 farther to the south over plans to build a liquefied natural gas terminal north of Santa Barbara at Point Conception. (One of the other groups to protest the terminal plans was called “Citizens Against Government Dumbness.” The Point Conception construction plans were quietly canceled in early 1986). Spanne also said that the protests were a long time ago, and that he believed that the Air Force and the local Chumash had a good relationship now, in part because he had helped the Chumash gain hunting and fishing rights on the base.

One of the big problems with dealing with culture and rumors is that it is difficult to place events in time without contemporary news accounts or other documents.

This was good information, but it was only the beginning. Whenever I got out to the West Coast, which happened about once a year back then, I tried to gather more information on the “curse” story if I had time. This was not easy for logistical reasons alone—my business took me either to Los Angeles or to San Francisco, and Vandenberg was not near to either of them, meaning that I often had to plan time simply to drive to the town of Lompoc, near Vandenberg, and spend the night in order to do a day of research in the area. During one visit I spent half a day at the Lompoc public library going through old copies of the Lompoc Record newspaper looking for any info on the problems at SLC-6, to no avail. A call to the newspaper itself was fruitless. The library also did not have a local history file like some libraries maintain, and I could not find out anything about a Lompoc historical society. My efforts to find press accounts on the Chumash protests at the construction site for the liquid natural gas facility also turned up almost nothing—a brief mention of a May 1978 protest, but no names or other details that would enable me to follow-up on the story.

Prior to one visit I contacted somebody who had written about the local Chumash Indians and asked if he could put me in touch with anybody I could talk to. He was wary and said that his own relations with the Chumash were tenuous. He also said that there were essentially three different Chumash groups and they didn’t get along with each other. Only one of the three groups, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, was federally recognized. I kept pushing and finally he said that the people he knew did not want to talk to me because they thought that I worked for the Air Force. Roger Guillemette also mentioned to me that one of the Chumash groups had a casino. I contacted a person at the casino—it may have been their public affairs representative—and that person told me that I could come by. That was the first potential opening that I had, although I was wary of walking in blind and saying something culturally insensitive. But this happened just before I was scheduled to fly back to the East Coast and I could not do it.

At one point, probably in 2005 or so, I was visiting the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington when I noticed that they had a research library and it was open. So I went in and talked to a researcher and asked if they had any good resources on the Chumash Indians. In particular, I was interested in their religious customs, because I didn’t know if they even included such things as curses or bad luck. He did a quick catalog search and did not come up with anything useful. I then told him about my research and said that I had been told that there were three Chumash groups in the central California coast area and I had heard that “they didn’t get along with each other.” He said that was common, that our concept of an Indian “tribe” was in many ways misleading, and often what white people—or the American government—consider a tribe is really a collection of family groups who have their own definitions. In addition, it is not uncommon for one group to get government recognition and open a casino and other groups then resent this fact.

One of the big problems with dealing with culture and rumors is that it is difficult to place events in time without contemporary news accounts or other documents. After decades of launching nothing from SLC-6, in 1995 and 1997 Lockheed—later Lockheed Martin—launched Athena rockets from the facility. The first one failed to reach orbit, and the Lewis satellite carried into orbit on the second launch died after a few days.

Lockheed Martin employees were aware of the curse rumors. Prior to the launch of an Ikonos satellite in 1999, they began circulating a joke image of an Indian supposedly “blessing” the launch. The image combined a photo of the launch shroud and an Indian chief taken from Microsoft Clip Art.

At some point, an aerospace contractor paid a Chumash religious leader to come out to the site and “remove the curse” and this had apparently created some controversy and hard feelings. It’s not hard to understand why, since the unofficial ceremony only fed the long-standing rumors that the problems at Slick-6 were not due to Air Force or contractor mismanagement and incompetence, but due to the Chumash Indians.

I received this information third-hand, but during a visit to Vandenberg in 2006 (during one of my space archeology tours) I asked a colleague there about this. He confirmed that it had actually happened and then said “I have pictures.” Unfortunately, he would not show them to me. Without any further data, I assumed that it was Lockheed Martin employees who had done this sometime after the April 1999 launch failure of the first Ikonos satellite. But a Lockheed Martin employee who worked on Athena said that he and his colleagues were unaware of any ceremony, and suggested that it may have been Boeing employees, who took over SLC-6 several years later to prepare it for Delta IV launches.

To be honest, I was working in these research trips when I could, and on my own dime, and couldn’t afford to devote a lot of time and attention to them. If I had a grant to research the subject and a lot of spare time I might have put more effort into it. But spending a few hundred dollars (rental car, hotel, food) and a day digging through microfilm records and gathering no leads was aggravating and disappointing.

The turnout for my talk was very good and I got the impression that at least several people had come to the symposium specifically to hear my talk—which turned out to be true, but not in the way that I really wanted.

In 2007 I was asked to speak at a symposium on “western aerospace history” that was being held near Pasadena. (See: “Blue skies on the West Coast: A history of the aerospace industry in Southern California”, The Space Review, August 20, 2007.) The symposium was led by Peter Westwick, who had a grant to support the project and was then writing a history of JPL. Anybody could submit a paper proposal and those that were accepted would receive travel money and an honorarium to present a paper at the symposium. At Westwick’s suggestion I proposed a paper on “the curse of Slick-6” and it was accepted. One of my goals was to try and stir up some information on this subject. I hoped that after my talk, somebody would come up to me and say they had information on the relationship between the local Chumash and the surrounding communities. (See: “The Chumash Indians and the Air Force”, The Space Review, September 4, 2007.)

The turnout for my talk was very good and I got the impression that at least several people had come to the symposium specifically to hear my talk—which turned out to be true, but not in the way that I really wanted. A number of people came up to talk to me afterwards. One elderly gentleman came up to me and gently shook his finger at me and said “Chumash curses are real.” At first I thought he was joking, but after a few seconds I realized he was totally serious. He told me about some park project that had suffered a lot of problems because the Indians had cursed it. I politely told the man that I didn’t believe in superstition, and then excused myself. But this was a lesson in itself: to some people curses were jokes, but to others they were real.

After my talk failed to turn up any new leads, I contacted Larry Spanne, who by this time had retired. Spanne shared some additional information with me in email correspondence. According to Spanne, in 1974 the Air Force conducted a survey of a stretch of land on the base that was going to be converted for shuttle use. The survey included test excavations at numerous sites in order to determine if any archeological sites were in the way of the construction. Although several Chumash cemeteries were discovered, none of these was near the Slick-6 facility. Later, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Spanne was part of a contractor team that included Santa Ynez Chumash representatives that monitored construction of space shuttle roads and facilities. According to Spanne, “no human remains or cemeteries were discovered during that multi-year project.”

But soon after a construction accident at the pad, when a large structure was blown off the rails in a high wind, one of the Chumash Elders assigned to the monitoring project, and aware of numerous problems that construction crews had encountered, remarked, “Larry, that place must be cursed.” Spanne interpreted this as an offhand comment, and said “at no time did I hear any Chumash person say that their people had cursed the facility.”

Stories of Indian curses have long been a part of American folklore. After all, to white settlers, Indians had strange and difficult to decipher customs, and it was common to attribute a white man’s bad luck to a mysterious force created by a member of a different culture or race (witness the alternative example of “the magical negro” in numerous Hollywood movies like The Green Mile). Of course, in the case of SLC-6, such a rumor was also an insulting way of blaming the Chumash for the white man’s foibles—not only had the federal government occupied sacred Chumash land, now whites had a convenient excuse for all their failures.

In his email to me in 2007, Spanne recounted how “over the years I spent many hours attempting to dispel or debunk the rumors, but they persist.” The “curse of Slick-6” rumor apparently existed for a long time before Roger Guillemette ever wrote about it.

Last year, The University of California Press published Blue Sky Metropolis, a collection of essays on California aerospace history that resulted from the 2007 symposium. The book was edited by Peter Westwick and covered a wide array of topics on California aerospace.

Perhaps this is simply as far as this story is going to go. Some historical subjects are not amenable to research. They will forever remain unknowable.

What prompted this long-winded explanation of my only partially-successful research effort on “the curse of Slick-6” was a new review of the book Blue Sky Metropolis by Roger Eardley-Pryor that appeared last month on H Net, the Humanities and Social Sciences Online resource. Eardley-Pryor referred to my essay as “overly reliant upon military sources,” which is a fair criticism. But it is also something that I acknowledged in the essay itself when I stated that doing research that crosses such major divides is challenging: a military historian is going to have a hard time finding cultural sources, and a cultural historian is going to have a hard time finding military sources.

At no point was this a major research project on my part; it was simply a story that I kept revisiting when I had an opportunity. One of the things that constantly nagged me was the belief that the resources might exist but that I was unaware of them, perhaps because I’m not familiar with doing research on cultural studies or anthropology or American Indian history. Maybe there is a good academic paper on the Chumash and their recent history. It is possible that Santa Maria, another town near Vandenberg, has a local history file with relevant information. Or perhaps UC Santa Barbara has a local history collection, or a professor or archivist who knows some relevant information. Perhaps one of the Chumash groups has recorded something on this topic. My hope was that by being public about the subject, somebody with useful information would contact me. But that never happened.

Or perhaps this is simply as far as this story is going to go. Some historical subjects are not amenable to research. They will forever remain unknowable. I would love to talk to a Chumash who was involved in the protests at Vandenberg in the early 1980s, or even at the Point Conception natural gas terminal site. At the least I’d like to talk to a Chumash representative who could explain their religion and the significance of the Western Gate in their culture. My goal is to be as accurate and respectful as possible and to make sure that I’m not simply writing about this subject from a single (ignorant) perspective but am including all sides. But I don’t expect to be successful at this. Perhaps the best I can hope for is that somebody with better educational training and knowledge—perhaps an anthropologist or cultural historian in California—is able to pick up the subject and research the story better than I have been able to do.