FAIRBANKS — The military says it knows why a rocket launched from the state-owned Kodiak rocket range had to be destroyed four seconds after launch last August, but refuses to release the report or disclose specific details of its contents other than to say "an external thermal protective cover designed to regulate motor temperature interfered with the launch vehicle steering assembly."
Because of the steering problem created by the support equipment, the test range flight safety officer made the correct decision to blow up the rocket just after launch, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.
A statement said the failure review board found "no issues" with the Kodiak range, which is operated by the state-owned Alaska Aerospace Corp., or with the rocket motors or the payload, a glider designed to fly at thousands of miles per hour within the upper atmosphere.
"A review of prior launches has found this to be a one-of-a-kind incident that was unexpected," spokesman John Cummings wrote in response to questions about what went wrong. He said "details of the investigation and findings are not releasable to the public," though he declined to say why the report is being withheld and whether anyone was found to be at fault for the failure of the protective cover.
Cummings also declined to say what the accident cost the taxpayers or provide any information about the thermal protective cover, whether it broke or was improperly designed or fitted. He did say that changes will take place.
"The launch vehicle flight was terminated near the launch pad shortly after liftoff. The correct flight safety protocol and procedures were followed by all mission personnel. Before this launch configuration was used again, corrective action would have to be identified and implemented," he said.
"The thermal protective cover is designed to regulate motor temperature prior to launch and remains in place until liftoff. Details of the failure review board findings are not releasable to the public," he said.
The state estimated damages to the complex at $26 million to $29 million. State officials said they expect most of the cost to be covered by insurance.
The Aug. 25 launch was to test the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, part of what the military calls the "conventional prompt global strike" program. The glider is designed to carry a weapon thousands of miles at five to 10 times the speed of sound. The goal of the global-strike effort is to develop the technology to hit a target anywhere in the world in as little as an hour without using nuclear weapons.
A Congressional Research Service report in August said that while proponents have said the high-speed weapons would reduce the nuclear threat, critics have charged "it might upset stability and possibly increase the risk of a nuclear response to a U.S. attack. This risk derives, in part, from the possibility that nations detecting the launch of a U.S. PGS (prompt global strike) weapon would not be able to determine whether the weapon carried a nuclear or conventional warhead. Congress has raised concerns about this possibility in the past."