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Army rocket blown up during failed launch in Kodiak

Richard Mauer,Laurel Andrews
Damage is visible at the Kodiak Launch Complex after a rocket launch was aborted early Monday morning, August 25, 2014, at the site. The rocket was carrying an Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a glider that once launched from a rocket flies a non-ballistic trajectory to its target. The flight was terminated less than four seconds after the launch. The launch was controlled remotely -- no people were in the buildings shown in the photo at the time of the launch. Photo by Eric Schwantes

A test of a new Army weapon failed 4 seconds into flight from the Kodiak Launch Complex early Monday when the rocket went awry and was blown to bits by flight controllers.

The fiery end to the rocket short-circuited the second test of a hypersonic glider designed to fly so fast it can reach anywhere on the globe in about an hour. The test target was the U.S. missile facility on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands, about 4,000 miles away.

Debris from the three-stage, solid-fuel launch vehicle rained down on the state-owned launch facility. No one was injured but buildings were damaged, said Craig Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Alaska Aerospace Corp.

The Defense Department leased the launch complex for the test, paying the state about $5 million, Campbell said.

Mark Greby, senior vice president of Alaska Aerospace Corp., said it was up to the Army to release details of the rocket failure and the videos that were shot of the event.

KMXT, the Kodiak public radio station, reported that eyewitnesses saw the rocket leave Launchpad 1 normally just after midnight, then flip over with its nose pointed down. KMXT said eyewitness saw an explosion and a fire that burned for a short while.

Greby, who was in the Kodiak control center observing the launch on video monitors, didn’t dispute the witness accounts but would say only that the rocket was clearly in trouble.

“Whether you were in the command center or people just standing outside, it was a fairly obvious,” Greby said. “It was definitely off course.”

The rocket was already traveling “at a fairly decent clip” when it failed, Greby said.

Campbell said he observed the launch from a maintenance building about two miles away. The rocket lifted normally and cleared the launch tower, a 120- to 150-foot structure at the pad, then went out of control, Campbell said.

Even in the midnight darkness from that distance, he could see it “spinning around and breaking up,” Campbell said. “It was above the tower when it became uncontrolled. I’m not sure what it was doing — it was not going straight up.”

It crashed in a “gigantic explosion,” Campbell said.

“It was a significant event, but it wasn’t the scariest thing I’ve ever had in my life. I watched it, I saw it, I knew it was happening, and I was feeling sorry for the launch team because their rocket wasn’t going to be able to accomplish what they were trying to get done, and knew we were going to have a day like today," he said. "We’re going to have to assess damages and figure out what the future is.”

State officials were waiting for a military safety team to arrive from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to take care of any unexploded fuel, collect rocket parts and gather what they could find of the experimental glider that was in the nose cone of the rocket. According to accounts in the trade press, similar weapons are under development by the Chinese and Russians.

The state transportation department ordered the indefinite closure of Pasagshak Road past the mouth of the Pasagshak River out of safety concerns.

Campbell said that with daylight, it was clear that several key buildings sustained serious damage — bent and broken sheet metal siding and roofs, bent doors, blown-out windows. When the JBER team gives the OK, state engineers will assess the damage, Campbell said.

“It affected the launch tower, the payload processing facility, and the integrated processing facility,” Campbell said. “These are all significant buildings — they’re what we use to launch a rocket.”

But there’s no rush to repair the buildings, originally built by the federal government and deeded to the state, because no other launches are pending, Campbell said.

The launch failure was the second involving a military test in Kodiak. On Nov. 9, 2001, a similar three-stage, solid-fuel rocket blew up 56 seconds into its flight from Kodiak toward the U.S. West Coast and the Pacific Ocean off Mexico in a test of missile-defense radar in California. The Army, which was conducting that test too, concluded the rocket blew itself up because of a programming or radio glitch as control was shifting from the ground to a P-3 Orion aircraft. Until that moment, the rocket was flying normally.

Like the 2001 test that ended in failure, the rocket in Monday’s test used a three-stage Strategic Targeting System rocket, a former Polaris missile decommissioned from the Navy’s arsenal, said Defense Department spokesperson Maureen Schumann.

“The booster system and the glide vehicle were developed by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque,” she said.

The first test of the advanced hypersonic weapon took place Nov. 17, 2011, and was a success when the rocket flew from Hawaii to Kwajalein, she said.

Unlike a ballistic missile, which goes up by rocket power and falls back to earth by gravity in a predictable arc, the prototype weapon in Monday’s test is supposed to glide from the upper atmosphere to its ground target carrying conventional explosives, withstanding the intense heat and complex atmospheric physics of hypersonic flight — up to five times the speed of sound. In the post-9/11 world, it’s supposed to offer U.S. commanders a high-speed alternative to much slower long-range attacks on targets by jets, cruise missiles or bombers.

Campbell said about 60 Defense Department employees were stationed in the facility for the launch.

“It was their launch and they made the decision” to destroy the rocket, he said.

Among the participants were personnel from the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency, Schumann said. The MDA has hired the Kodiak facility several times for firing rockets designed to simulate a missile attack, perhaps from North Korea.

Scott Wight, who witnessed the failed launch, wrote on his Facebook page that watching the explosion was “quite scary to see. The sound was quite loud even though we were many miles from the launch site.”

Schumann said the Department of Defense would convene a failure review board made up of experts from the Army, Navy, the Missile Defense Agency and Sandia Labs.

“This is not going to be an hours- or days-long investigation,” she said. “At a minimum, weeks or months.”

No further tests of the advanced hypersonic weapon are scheduled, Schumann said.