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Failed rocket launch a setback for US hypersonic weapon program, Kodiak Launch Complex

Dermot Cole
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

As a 48-foot rocket lifted off from the Kodiak Launch Complex Monday, a flight control operator realized it would never fly. Four seconds into the mission, he triggered the “Flight Termination System,” setting off an explosion that split the motor casing and lit up the night sky.

The blast destroyed the three-stage rocket and an experimental glider with winglets that sat atop the rocket under a nosecone. The test produced a pile of debris and stands as a setback for a costly military research program aimed at developing an unmanned glider capable of carrying weapons thousands of miles at thousands of miles per hour.

While the Pentagon begins to pick up the pieces, the failure to launch raises new questions about the future of the state-owned Alaska Aerospace Corp.

Craig Campbell, president of Alaska Aerospace, said Tuesday it may be a few days before officials can perform an internal inspection of the damaged launch site and nearby buildings. That review may not happen before Thursday, when the corporate board is to hold a regularly scheduled meeting in Kodiak. The accident is likely to be a prime topic.

The corporation leased the facility for $5 million to the Department of Defense for the launch, controlled by the military and its contractors. The state maintains the site, but the military contractors and the government brought in a team to run all aspects of the mission.

Campbell said Alaska Aerospace has insurance that will cover part of the damage, but it’s not clear how the bills for repairs will be covered. He said the corporation’s lawyers and the state risk management office are checking into it.

“There’s damage there and we will assess it and we will do something to continue to do operations out of Kodiak,” he said. “What that looks like in the future, we don’t know yet because we don’t know how much damage there is. We don’t know what we might need to do to repair it or replace it.”

Campbell said accidents happen at other launch facilities and there are natural disasters at launch sites as well, including hurricanes in Florida.

“You repair, you rebuild, whatever is necessary, you stay in business,” he said. “Our intention is to remain a launch range.”

No launches scheduled

There are no future launches booked for the site, but Campbell said there are negotiations for a few possible projects. Continuing a long pattern of state subsidies, the corporation received $6 million from the Legislature this year for operations and $2.4 million for capital projects, the latter unrelated to anything that happened Monday.

“I do know we are very valuable to our country, what we do in putting satellites into polar orbit from Kodiak,” he said, adding that he believes there will be support to keep it as an alternative site for polar orbit launches.

One of the Kodiak residents who doesn’t share that view is Mike Sirofchuck, who helped found the Kodiak Rocket Launch Information Group nearly two decades ago. He said there is concern about the explosion, but it’s not the launch failure that is the main worry, as much as the failure to have any launches.

“The fact that there are no future launches scheduled makes it pretty clear that this facility is not doing what it was intended to do and it’s time for it to go away. It’s time to quit wasting money on it,” Sirofchuck said.

He said the launch site has never been self-supporting and there is no sign that is about to change.

17th launch from Kodiak

The mission was the 17th launch from Kodiak since the complex began in 1998, funded through federal funds directed to the project by the late Sen. Ted Stevens when he controlled much of the appropriations process in Congress. Monday's launch was the first to cause damage to facilities on the ground and the second rocket that went astray.

The goal of the mission had been to release a military glider at the upper edge of the Earth’s atmosphere and send it screaming toward a tiny Pacific island 3,500 miles away at speeds more than twice as fast as the now-retired supersonic Concorde jet.

The “Advanced Hypersonic Weapon” is one element in what the Pentagon calls the “Conventional Prompt Global Strike,” an initiative that would give the U.S. military the ability to hit any target in the world within an hour with a glider carrying a conventional weapon.

Congress has appropriated about $300 million over the past three years and the White House has sought nearly $70 million for the next fiscal year.

In 2011, a glider launched from Hawaii traveled 2,400 miles to Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific

In May, the Congressional Research Service said with that successful flight, the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon appeared to be the “leading contender for the hypersonic glider portion of a boost glide conventional prompt strike system.”

In June, a House committee added $20 million to the budget for the hypersonic glider, saying a third flight test was needed.

More tests likely

As for the next step in the glider project, Al Shaffer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, said in early August that if the test failed, more tests would follow. Whether additional tests would take place in Kodiak is another question, however.

"By experimenting, you learn, you take some of the risk out and you do it again," Shaffer said, according to the Inside Missile Defense newsletter.

Jane’s Defence Weekly reported Tuesday that there is backing in Congress for further testing.

“Recent reports that China has flight tested its so-called WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle and conducted hypersonic wind tunnel tests, while Russia is also understood to be developing hypersonic weapons, are likely to keep the program running,” Jane’s Defence Weekly said.

James Acton, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that since the glider barely got off the ground due to the rocket failure, it was not tested during the Kodiak accident.

“Given what happened, I think it is likely that the Pentagon would want to run this test again,” he said by email, adding that he does not know whether Kodiak would be the preferred location for another try. He said he is concerned about a hypersonic arms race with the Chinese that could make the world more dangerous.

“It may not be possible to prevent this arms race -- China’s failed test is unlikely to stop it trying again -- but I’d like to see more of an effort to try,” Acton said.

He said the U.S. has spent nearly $1 billion on prototypes for "boost-glide weapons," but the mission remains cloudy. In a recent article for Foreign Policy, he warned that if the nation doesn't "find a policy to guide its rapidly advancing technology, it may simply glide into catastrophe."