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Alaska Aerospace takes some solace in knowing the rocket left the ground

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. Eric Schwantes

With no answers yet about why a rocket launch failed in Kodiak, leaders of the Alaska Aerospace Corp. find themselves wrestling with the tricky question of public relations damage control.

At a board meeting Thursday in Kodiak, they discussed whether the state-owned corporation could make any statement that the accident early Monday was not its fault.

The short answer: No.

But some members said it would be correct to say that the rocket left the launchpad. And to that extent the support role of the Alaska Aerospace Corp. can be dubbed a success, pending any disclosures to the contrary in the weeks and months ahead.

Calling the four-second flight a success borders on “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”  but board members said a statement crafted with care is in order.

“Is it your understanding at this point that we did our job well and there’s no culpability for the damage that occurred?” Kodiak Sen. Gary Stevens, an ex-officio board member, asked the corporation staff.

It is too soon to answer that question, as a full report on the cause may not be finished for months, according to Alaska Aerospace President Craig Campbell. But he said it is true that the rocket got off the ground.

“That rocket did leave the pad and all our work is the support work to get to that point. And so I’m speculating that our team did awfully good,” said Campbell.

University of Alaska President Pat Gamble, the chairman of the Alaska Aerospace board, said he thinks the corporation should make a public statement to that effect. Had the launch tower started to collapse at liftoff, the situation would be different, but the rocket did blast off and there is no obvious smoking gun that the corporation is at fault, he said.

“It looks like at this point that the mission was successful as far as Alaska Aerospace. Now if we’re wrong, we’re wrong.  But I think it’s got to be said at this particular point or people will speculate, and that’s not good for anything, because it can lead them in a different direction. If it does take a long time, that just festers,” Gamble said.

Stevens agreed there should be some statement from the company, saying that based on what is now known “we don’t see that we are responsible. That we did our job. It left the launch in proper order.”

Board member James Underwood said whether a failure took place four seconds, 40 seconds or 400 miles after launch, the result is the same for the military and its contractors. He said Alaska Aerospace shares those concerns and is aware of the need for a full analysis, but “you are absolutely right, we had a successful liftoff.”

 Military contract 

The Department of Defense hired Miltec of Huntsville, Alabama, to test and develop the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, one part of what the Pentagon calls a “Conventional Prompt Global Strike” weapons plan.

Miltec signed a contract with Alaska Aerospace for the launch, the first at Kodiak in three years. While the launch brought $5 million to Alaska Aerospace, it also boosted the local economy. Campbell said about $300,000 was spent in Kodiak on rental cars over the past couple of months and the hotels were often full as about 120 people rotated in and out of the community.

A Congressional Research Service report in May said that because of a successful flight test in 2011, the Army program is now the leading contender for a “boost-glide” strike system. The rocket “boosts” the glider to high altitude, allowing it to glide from about 20 miles up toward a target at about five times the speed of sound.

Although the second flight test failed, a key Pentagon planner said early this month that more tests would follow, though that doesn’t mean they would be in Alaska.

Along with the cause of the failure, liability and who would pay to repair or replace what has been damaged are unknown. 

The board received a preliminary review of damage to buildings, but until they are deemed safe to enter, a full evaluation can’t be made, said John Zbitnoff, general manager of the launch complex. An explosive ordinance disposal team from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson is “diligently working lots of hours,” he said.

 Destroyed after launch

A federally approved official controlled the “termination system” and ordered the destruction of the 48-foot rocket and its payload almost immediately after the launch.

The test Monday of the prototype was supposed to track the flight of the glider for 3,500 miles to a landing site in the South Pacific.

“We have been planning this test for a long time and practicing for a very long time and there were no issues with test execution,” said Julie Schumacher, director of the technical center for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville.

“Unfortunately, we did experience a failure early in flight and the flight vehicle was destroyed,” she said.

She was asked if she could describe what happened in “layman’s terms.”

“Sorry, I can’t. I can’t comment,” she said.

 Pacific Spaceport Complex

The Kodiak launch complex, built mainly with federal earmarks authored by the late Sen. Ted Stevens, has relied on state subsidies in recent years since losing most of its missile defense work.

Lawmakers have made it clear they want the subsidy to be on a downward slide, dropping $2 million a year. The annual operating subsidy of $8 million dropped to $6 million this year (not counting $2.4 million in construction work) and is expected to dip to $4 million next year and $2 million the year after that.

While it’s not clear where the money to repair or rebuild parts of the complex would come from, Campbell said he would not go back to the Legislature for construction funds.

Stevens asked if the Department of Defense would be called on to pay for repairs, but Campbell said it’s premature to say how insurance coverage, the private contractor and the federal government would fit into any settlement.

For the corporation, staying in business will require repairs to the facility, as well as finding new commercial customers to launch rockets.

The company is looking to foreign countries and private companies as potential users and it agreed Thursday to change the name of the Kodiak Launch Complex to the “Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska” to reflect its interest in a more diversified clientele.

At present, the complex has no launches scheduled and it takes up to two years to put a project together, but Campbell said the company is working to attract commercial customers who want to launch smaller satellites.

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com,