by Margarete Minar
One of the main purposes for the proposed museum extension is to house a permanent exhibit on a National Defense and Reconnaissance Exhibit and “the Blue Cube”, but what is “the Blue Cube”? More importantly, what is so special about it that the museum wants to create an entirely new space to make room for it?
What’s with that name?
In a nutshell, “the Blue Cube” was a nickname for a building that looked like a blue cube — see photo above. It was a massive multi- storied, windowless, high-security complex, blue in color, located at Onizuka Air Force Station. The site was home to the Air Force Satellite Control Facility (AFSCF), which was a space command and control unit. The airbase closed in 2011, and in 2014 the cube was dismantled. Today, the site is part of the campus at Foothill De Anza Community College District.
For what was “the Blue Cube” used?
At its peak, more than 1,200 people worked at “the Blue Cube”. Employees in the windowless building tracked satellites, and the building was accessible only to those with special security clearance.
The Air Force also credits the base with being the birthplace of the Corona program (first declassified in 1995). This program, under the direction of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), deployed reconnaissance satellites that were used for photographic surveillance of areas which included the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. In April 2007 the mission of the NRO at Onizuka AFS ended after 46 years and in 2010 the base was officially closed.
Why does the museum want to tell the story of “the Blue Cube”?
Many of the programs at the secretive facility have since been declassified, enabling former employees to speak about their projects. Museum director Laura Babcock explains, “We could never do an exhibit before because we could never talk to anyone.”
Before the building was demolished in 2014, staff were able to mark artifacts they wanted to save. The original plan was to display the items at the community college now on the site, but the school found they didn’t have the room for all of them. Sunnyvale Historical Society and Museum Association was contacted to see if they would like to display the items. Not only would the museum like to permanently display the items, SHSMA is currently looking for Blue Cube engineers to tell their stories. Thus far, many people have reached out to share their knowledge and experiences.
The full significance of the top secret operations that took place at “the Blue Cube” has yet to be understood. This is an important part of Sunnyvale history in regards to the development of technology and defense. In addition to that, when we understand the story and its relation to national security and foreign policy, it is our obligation as curators of history to collect it and share with future generations.
Important dates and facts:
1960 – The Air Force was the first military organization solely charged with military satellite operations, and an interim satellite control facility was moved to the Lockheed Missiles and Space Company facility in Sunnyvale.
1963 – While the facility was under Air Force management, it was “nationalized”by Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara to be a hub for the space branch of the Department of Defense, the Air Force, and NASA.
1968 – Construction of “the Blue Cube” began as the Advanced Satellite Test Centerto support space missions run by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) (still classified today).
1977 – The headquarters element of the Air Force Satellite Control Facility (AFSCF) moved from Los Angeles to Sunnyvale.
1981 – AFSCF began support for the shuttle program.
1985 – The Space Shuttle Discovery was the first space shuttle mission for the Department of Defense, and was the first space mission for Lt. Col. Ellison Onizuka who died a year later in the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Sunnyvale AFB was renamed Onizuka AFB in his honor.
1980s-90s – The Silicon Valley region grew and the station’s physical security vulnerabilities became apparent.
1995 – Onizuka AFB became the back-up facility, and primary operations were moved to Schriever AFB, outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
2005 -The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission report recommended closing Onizuka AFB and moving the remaining operations to Vandenberg AFB.
2010 – Onizuka AFS closed.
2014 – “The Blue Cube” and surrounding buildings were demolished.
The photos below were found on Yelp.com (an interesting place to find photos for the former AFB). Thank you to Fred T. for taking them and sharing. These are just a few
“History of Onizuka” from the Foothill College website
“ ‘Blue Cube’ exhibit planned at Sunnyvale museum”, Mercury News article, Victoria Kezra
“To look out from a higher plateau: the naming of Onizuka Air Force Station”, The Space Review website article, by Joseph T. Page II