Rocket Explodes, Destroying Spy Satellite

By Kathy Sawyer and William Harwood
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 13, 1998; Page A02

An Air Force rocket carrying a top-secret spy satellite exploded in a fountain of blazing lights, smoke and toxic fuel about 42 seconds after liftoff from its Cape Canaveral launch pad early yesterday.

No one was injured but the explosion destroyed hardware worth about $1.3 billion, making it among the worst American unmanned launch failures, analysts said. The cause was not known.

The Titan 4A rocket, towering 20 stories high and weighing almost 2 million pounds, thundered east over the Atlantic at 7:30 a.m., after the liftoff was delayed 89 minutes. It suddenly heeled over and blew apart, according to Air Force officials and other witnesses.

"Oh, no," said the launch commentator, as the breakup commenced. Two seconds later, officials said, launch controllers sent destruct signals, completing a spectacular detonation that was visible for dozens of miles in Florida.

"We had nothing leading up to that," Air Force Brig. Gen. Randy Starbuck, commander of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, told reporters at a midday briefing. "We saw the pitch and that was the first indication we had. And then the explosion."

Brightly burning bits of solid rocket propellant and other debris from the explosion rained down in sweeping arcs into the ocean, and the rolling booms from the blast set off car and house alarms as far south as Cocoa Beach.

Journalists and Air Force guests viewing the launch from three or four miles away were hurried onto buses and driven clear. Neither Cape Canaveral Air Station nor NASA's Kennedy Space Center nearby was evacuated.

The Titan, powered and steered at this point only by two solid-fuel boosters similar to those on the space shuttle, was about 20,000 feet above the Atlantic when it exploded. The flaming debris, toxic substances and blast itself were carried away from land by 20-knot winds from the southeast, Starbuck said. Air Force rules require that winds must be blowing toward the sea during any Titan launch.

Starbuck cautioned the public against picking up any rocket fragments that might be found floating on the water or washing ashore. Although none of the debris is radioactive, he said, "It should be considered hazardous material." The pieces landed about a half mile offshore, a mile and a half from the launch site in water 20 to 50 feet deep.

The liquid propellant -- a nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer, which combines with hydrazine fuel -- is highly toxic. The explosion turned the unspent propellant into a distinctive orangish-red cloud, which wafted out to sea and dispersed.

Titan 4 rockets, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., are the most powerful expendable launch vehicles in the U.S. inventory, and are exceeded in payload capacity only by NASA's reusable, manned space shuttle. This was the 25th flight of an Air Force Titan since the inaugural flight in 1989, and the second failure. A Titan 4A exploded after launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in August 1993, an accident caused by the rupture of a solid-fuel booster seconds after liftoff.

The next Titan launch is scheduled for December, but officials said the fleet is grounded until an accident investigation board determines the cause of yesterday's destruction.

"We're hurt," Starbuck said. "This is a sad day for the United States Air Force, because we don't want this to happen."

The Titan and associated launch costs totaled $344 million, officials said. The Air Force referred questions about the payload to the secretive National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), where an official would only confirm that the payload was theirs.

Space analyst John Pike, of the Federation of American Scientists, said the huge size of the Titan payload compartment in the rocket's nose, the presence of a Centaur upper stage and other clues indicated the payload was a giant intelligence gathering "ear" in the sky, an advanced, $1 billion version of a satellite called Vortex.

The Advanced Vortex signals intelligence satellite deploys a huge antenna with a diameter of 328 feet -- bigger than the length of a football field. It can intercept broadcast transmissions from radios, cell phones, radars and other electronic communications systems, even down to simple hand-held radios, experts said. The advanced model can also collect electronic transmissions in noncommunications categories, such as telemetry from missile tests or radar transmitters.

A government official well-acquainted with national security satellite operations said the speculations about the Titan payload were not off base. "I wouldn't wave you off that line." He said that, while the loss was something short of a major national security catastrophe, "it takes quite a few years to build one of these satellites. They're all handcrafted."

After the 1986 Challenger disaster, which killed seven shuttle astronauts, the Air Force greatly expanded its order for Titan 4s to a total of 49 rockets. This was the final model of the A series of the rocket. It is being replaced by an upgraded B model, featuring a different type of solid fuel boosters and other improvements.

Yesterday's launch had been delayed from its original 6:01 a.m. time by a problem with a reading on a propellant tank in the Centaur upper stage, which is required for payloads bound for high orbits. The tank was reading only 95 percent full, but launch technicians, after investigating, concluded that the tank was actually full and that the reading was false, officials said.

The problem led to speculation among some observers that the upper stage "fill valve" might have caused the explosion. However, other observers said videos of the explosions suggested a control or steering problem.

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