Culture | June 3, 2022 6:30 am

Here’s Exactly Where to See Lompoc’s NASA and SpaceX Rocket Launches

A best-ever day trip, and all you’ll need is some solid parking abilities

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich spacecraft lifts off from Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Nov. 21, 2020
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich spacecraft lifts off from Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Nov. 21, 2020
NASA/Isaac Watson

A dilemma: You want to see rockets blast into space. How to do it, as a mere civilian? 

To start, you’ll want to head to Lompoc, where you’ll be joining a handful of cosmophiles and space enthusiasts at incredible viewing areas around town. Located about an hour north of Santa Barbara on the Pacific Coast Highway, this modest hamlet is home to a stealthy military complex: Vandenberg Space Force Base. Throughout the year, NASA, SpaceX, and others test uncrewed rockets at various launch sites on the base. It’s not so easy to pop in for some space action: Vanderberg is operated by the Department of Defense, and getting access to the site is tricky for anyone not in the military. That’s where we come in. 

Lompoc’s public roads and outlooks are a rocket viewer’s dream, thanks to the area’s spectacular valleys, seaside beauty and picturesque rolling hills. Below, you’ll find everything you need to pursue this awesome, bucket-list activity. Mark your calendars: There’s a launch coming up in mid-June and several more in July and August. Note that missile launch days and times can change due to weather, so make sure to check the website or call a few days in advance for details (805-606-9263).

Hawk’s Nest 

Perched in an empty rural stretch off Highway 1, Hawk’s Nest is one of Lompoc’s best viewing areas due to its high elevation. You’ll find plenty of off-road parking at the intersection of Cabrillo Highway and Azalea Lane. Arrive at least 30 minutes before the scheduled launch time and prepare to hang out, as launches can be delayed by fog and safety checks on the complex circuitry. (This is rocket science, after all.) It’s a good idea to bring snacks, water, comfy folding chairs and a card game or two to pass the time. This is the closest viewing spot to the base, so you’ll feel the sonic boom when the missile emerges. Even if you’re not a space enthusiast, the dramatic show is well worth sacrificing a few hours. 

West Ocean Avenue

Allow a little extra time to navigate parking along West Ocean Avenue, the major road that cuts through downtown Lompoc. The best viewing areas are a few minutes west of town, at the intersections of Renwich Avenue, Floradale Avenue and the crossing of 13th and Arguello Blvd. (the closest spot to the action). For safety on this active roadway, park on the smaller cross streets to avoid holding up traffic. Don’t forget to bring binoculars or a small telescope for a close-up look. 

Santa Lucia Canyon Road

This tried-and-true spot, located at the intersection of Santa Lucia Canyon Road and Victory Road, is a popular viewing perch for Space Launch Complex 3 (SLC-3), used by an Atlas V rocket to ferry satellites into orbit. Atlas V is among the most reliable and spectacular spacecraft in the world, and the launches often draw a crowd, so get here early to ensure a prime parking spot. You may also catch a partial view of a SpaceX mission from the SLC-4 launch pad if you’re lucky.

Old Town

Though not the most scenic spot, the vast parking lot at the Walmart Supercenter (701 W. Central) is easily one of the best viewing locations in Lompoc, according to the folks at Vandenberg Air Force Base. What it lacks in natural beauty, it makes up for in easy parking and proximity to Lompoc’s quaint and funky Old Town. To get the most out of your space adventure, why not turn your day trip into a long weekend? After the rocket action, head over to H Street to discover the delights of a classic small town, where historic buildings and alleyways are adorned with more than 40 murals, and locals gather at the Friday Farmers’ Market. Mom-and-pop stores, restaurants and art galleries abound in this walkable mile-long area. Outside of town, you’ll find wine tastings at sprawling vineyards in the surrounding countryside, and miles of pristine beaches are a short drive away. Not to be missed is the beautifully restored Mission at La Purisíma State Historic Park, which is considered the most intact of all of California’s 21 missions. Call the Vandenberg Visitor Center at 805-606-7662 or visit the Lompoc tourism website to plan your space odyssey.