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Army rocket exploded seconds after liftoff from Kodiak site

Laurel Andrews
A rocket from the Kodiak Launch Complex is shown exploding. This rocket, launched from the Kodiak site early Monday morning, exploded when officials terminated the flight seconds after liftoff. Courtesty Scott Wight

Seconds after a rocket carrying a test weapon was launched from the Kodiak Launch Complex Monday morning, the rocket self-destructed, causing an unknown amount of damage on the complex grounds, officials from the Department of Defense said.

The rocket was carrying the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a glider that, once launched from a rocket, flies a non-ballistic missile trajectory toward its target -- in this case in the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. According to a Defense Department release, the test was aborted in the interest of safety: “Due to an anomaly, the test was terminated near the launch pad shortly after liftoff to ensure public safety. There were no injuries to any personnel,” the release said.

Defense Department spokeswomen Maureen Schumann said she did not know what the anomaly was, but added, "I believe that the people that terminated it knew what the anomaly was."

Schumann said personnel conducting the test made the decision to terminate the test. The system also has the capability to automatically self-destruct, but in this case the decision was made by those running the test, she said.

The flight was terminated less than four seconds after the launch, Schumann said, and the rocket “came back down at the range complex,” where it caused damage, “the extent of which I’m not clear,” but no injuries. Kodiak Public Radio Station KMXT reported eyewitness accounts of an explosion and a fire that burned for a short while afterward.

Craig Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Alaska Aerospace Corp., said that the area was cordoned off after the test failure. A Defense Department official would be surveying the scene later Monday morning, he said.

“I think damage to the facility is probably not extensive,” Campbell said. “At least what we think we saw last night.”

About 60 Department of Defense employees were stationed in the launch facility at the time of the incident, Campbell said. “It was their launch and they made the decision” to self-destruct the rocket, he said.

Campbell said that this incident was the first failed launch at the Kodiak Launch Complex, which has conducted 17 launches since the first in 1998.

“I saw the liftoff and I saw the rocket be destroyed,” Campbell said. “It lifted off normally and didn’t go very far.”

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.”

"The Narrow Cape Area will be closed beyond [the launch complex] until further notice," a release from the Alaska Aerospace Corp., which operates the Kodiak range, said.

Schumann said the Department of Defense would convene a Failure Review Board to investigate the event, an investigation likely to be a lengthy one. “This is not going to be an hours or days long investigation,” she said, “At a minimum, weeks or months.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.