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Throughout its almost 50-year existence, few in the nation knew about the “Blue Cube” located in Sunnyvale, California. The Air Force Satellite Control Facility (AFSCF) was once home to a light blue, cube-shaped building, which was the distinguishing feature of the compound. This building represented the origins of U.S. space operations.
In 1958, as tensions rose between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (USSR) during the Cold War following the launching of SPUTNIK I by the USSR, the Department of Defense (DoD) realized that the U.S. needed to re-evaluate how intelligence was being collected. DoD leadership recognized a need for the Air Force to assist with additional reconnaissance efforts and begun the process of building the Air Force Satellite Test Center. The AFSCF base became the home for new and emerging operational programs in the areas of space reconnaissance.
One of the first programs was the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). This space-based lab was originally conceived in 1962 and was publically announced in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In his address to the American public, President Johnson stated, “this program will bring us new knowledge about what man is able to do in space.”
In 1969, Sunnyvale’s Building 1003, which would become known as the “Blue Cube,” was built to support the MOL program, run by Operating Division Four (OD-4). However, on June 10, 1969, the MOL program was cancelled having made no operational flights. Prior to the MOL program, NRO—stood up in 1961—planned to supersede the original photoreconnaissance satellite, the Corona program, with that of a more powerful, high-resolution program. The improved capabilities of the Gambit-3 and the planned improvements from Hexagon—NRO’s second and third photoreconnaissance satellite programs—exceeded that of Corona. Their success led succeeding President Richard Nixon to believe that there was no need to increase the cost and risk to send astronauts into space, thus ending the MOL program.
Although the MOL program never made an operational flight, it was the gateway to understanding that unmanned spy satellites of OD-4 would soon exceed the capabilities of the MOL mission. After the MOL program was officially cancelled, the “Blue Cube” was used to house other DoD satellite programs.
Due to the region’s population increase in the 1970s, the station’s physical security vulnerabilities became apparent. As a result, Air Force Space Command relocated operations from the Silicon Valley to Falcon Air Force Station, Colorado–renamed Schriever Air Force Base in June 1998. Spacecraft operations were split between the two locations and each location would serve as a backup to the other.
AFSCF was renamed the Onizuka Air Force Station in January 1994 in honor of Lt. Col. Ellison Shoji Onizuka—a U.S. Air Force test pilot, engineer, the first Asian-American, the first Japanese-American, and the first Buddhist astronaut to reach space—who was tragically killed in the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster in 1986.
In 2005, after 46 years of service, Onizuka AFB was selected for closure, causing NRO to relocate its remaining resources to Schreiver AFB and Vandenberg SFB. NRO’s mission at the facility ended in April 2007 and Onizuka AFB was officially closed down on Sept. 30, 2010, one year before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s deadline. The land was turned over to the city of Sunnyvale in 2013 and the building was demolished in April 2014.