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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Like in "Buffy", there is a Curse from a Chumash Tribe...

Saturday 8 July 2006, by Webmaster

Can a launch pad be cursed? Engineers laugh — but nervously.

An Air Force launch site called SLC-6 (pronounced "Slick-6") at Vandenberg Air Force Base has become legendary in aerospace circles for an eerie history of failed programs and botched launches.

Now on Tuesday, the Boeing Corporation will tempt fate and try to launch a new spy satellite from the unlucky site — 40 years after the Air Force built the pad over an Indian burial ground in a rocky stretch of California desert.

"I wish them good luck and hope they have a good launch," says retired NASA astronaut Robert Crippen, who is well acquainted with the legend. "If I’ve got one disappointment in my career, it was I never had the chance to fly out of SLC-6."

Construction on Space Launch Complex 6 began on March 12, 1966. The site was originally intended for the Titan III launch vehicle, and was to be part of the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory, or MOL, program — a plan to put military astronauts in orbit to keep an eye on the Soviet Union.

According to space historian Robert Ash, construction workers building the pad unearthed human remains from an ancient Chumash Indian burial ground. Members of the tribe asked the Air Force to study the area and move the remains to another location, but the military brass ignored the request and continued construction.

Naturally this angered the Chumash tribe, and, according to local legends, a tribe leader put a curse on the site.

The MOL program was cancelled soon after due to military priorities in Vietnam, and SLC-6 was mothballed. Crippen, who was training as one of the MOL astronauts (nicknamed "Mole Men"), found himself out of a job. "I was devastated — it was the end of the world," he recalls. "It was one of the worst points of my life."

Within a couple of months many of the Mole Men, including Crippen, were recruited into NASA’s astronaut program. But Crippen’s fate would remain entwined with SLC-6.

In the 1970s, the Air Force decided to reengineer the unused pad as an alternate California launch point for the Space Shuttle. Problems plagued the retrofitting effort, but after seven years of construction SLC-6 was declared operational, at a final cost of $2 billion.

Crippen was scheduled to command the first Shuttle mission from Vandenberg, when the 1986 Challenger disaster caused NASA to abandon its plans for California launches, and SLC-6 was once again mothballed.

Years later, Lockheed adapted SLC-6 for their Athena launch vehicle. On Aug. 15, 1995, SLC-6’s first launch finally took place, 29 years after ground was first broken at the site. The payload was a small experimental communications relay satellite.

The rocket’s hydraulic system failed shortly after launch and the vehicle crashed.

The curse of Slick-6 seemed to be broken by a successful launch on Aug. 23, 1997 of the Lewis spacecraft. But a design problem in the attitude control system caused it to enter a flat spin in orbit, cutting its solar panels off from the sun and returning it, the next month, to Earth’s atmosphere and a fiery doom. SLC-6 had finally put something into orbit — but it was all for naught.

The first commercial spy satellite, Ikonos, lifted off from the pad on April 27, 1999. The rocket’s nose cone never separated and it ended up falling into the Pacific Ocean.

One final Athena launch was scheduled for SLC-6: a duplicate of the Ikonos satellite that failed to reach orbit. This time instead of just crossing their fingers and hoping the curse would falter, the launch team decided to do something. According to Ash, the ground crew held a ceremony in which a Chumash priest, hired by Lockheed Martin, asked the gods for forgiveness and to remove the curse. (Lockheed denies such a ceremony took place.) On Sept. 24, 1999 an Athena successfully put the Ikonos satellite into orbit.

But the Athena turned out to be a major marketing failure. Instead of the scores of launches planned, just a handful of rockets were sold, and the program was quietly cancelled.

Since SLC-6 was built, the Air Force has changed its policies about construction over Indian artifacts. Whenever new facilities are erected at Vandenberg Air Force Base the local community and Chumash leaders are consulted in advance. The construction site is carefully scraped in inch-thick layers, and if any artifacts are found, historians and experts are called in to determine their nature, and to make the call on whether to move construction to another site.

Whether the military’s new sensitivity is enough to lift the SLC-6 curse remains to be seen. It’s aerospace giant Boeing’s turn to find out. The company has converted SLC-6 into a Delta IV launch pad, the fourth remaking of the site.

The Delta IV is one of the largest rockets in the world, and the only one capable of launching giant multi-billion dollar spy satellites.

The launch of the medium-size version of the rocket is scheduled for Tuesday, carrying a top secret relay satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office.

There’s no word on whether Boeing has hired a Chumash priest to bless the site. But a company engineer working on the launch says she has an Indian feather on her desk — out of respect for the Chumash.