Everybody knows about the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, from which the space shuttle flies. Many people know about Vandenberg Air Force Base, in central California, from which the military launches spy satellites aboard big Titan rockets originally designed to hurl nuclear bombs at the Soviet Union. But hardly anybody knows about a third spaceport in the United States, which can be found adjoining a bird sanctuary at one end of the isthmus on which the Port of Long Beach sits, just outside Los Angeles.
No government agency or military organization owns this new facility. Its heart is an enormous, otherworldly-looking vessel called the Odyssey—a floating launch pad, twenty stories high, built atop the same kind of floodable pillars as an oil platform. When viewed from a distance, the ship suggests the alien-designed teleportation tower in the sci-fi movie Contact. Intended to sail to the Equator and send into orbit an unmanned rocket that can carry as much as the space shuttle, the Odyssey is the operational part of the first entirely private effort to put into space entirely private large rockets carrying entirely private payloads. The ship is so large that when it came through the Suez Canal, in 1998, its owners, a company called Sea Launch, had to rent both lanes. Moored near the Odyssey at Long Beach is a large companion ship, the Sea Launch Commander. Built in Glasgow, the Sea Launch Commander scraped the sides of the Panama Canal on its passage from Scotland to California.