Titan IV rocket, with spy probe, explodes

August 03, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

An unmanned Titan IV rocket carrying a top-secret spy satellite exploded yesterday moments after launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in what civilian space experts said may be the most expensive U.S. space accident since the Challenger disaster.

"Between the cost of the spacecraft and the cost of the satellite, this was a $2 billion accident," said John Pike, director of the space policy project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "That is the equivalent of this year's space station budget."

"For the cost of this accident, everybody in America could see 'Jurassic Park,' " he said.

Air Force officials would not identify the satellite aboard the rocket yesterday. But Mr. Pike, a national security analyst, said the Titan carried a Lacrosse radar imaging satellite -- one of the most secret, sophisticated and expensive tools in the U.S. space reconnaissance network.

Vandenberg officials estimated the cost of the rocket and its launch at about $200 million, but refused to discuss the cost of the satellite or any other details concerning the payload. Pentagon officials could not be reached for comment.

The 200-foot-tall Titan IV is the most powerful U.S. rocket. The Air Force has used it for its heaviest payloads almost exclusively since the Challenger accident in 1986 as a more reliable alternative to the manned space shuttle.

Air Force officials said the Titan was launched from Vandenberg at 3:59 p.m. EDT and exploded two minutes later over the Pacific Ocean, about 60 miles offshore, before its first-stage booster rockets finished firing. Vandenberg is about 150 miles north of Los Angeles.

"We had a normal liftoff and what appeared to be a nominal flight FTC for about 100 seconds before the explosion," said Maj. Billy E. Birdwell, director of public affairs for the Air Force 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg. "The explosion occurred before first-stage separation, before the solid rocket motors separated.

"Instants later, there was nothing left except debris falling toward the ocean," he said.

Air Force officials said they do not yet know why the rocket exploded.

The loss of the satellite leaves an important gap in the U.S. space spy network at a time when the CIA and the National Reconnaissance Office -- which manages the secret satellite network -- have been attempting to stave off budget cuts to their space surveillance program, Mr. Pike said.

The annual cost of the U.S. surveillance satellite network is classified, but experts estimate it at more than $6 billion.

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