Rocket launches postponed at Poker Flats

Posted: Monday, January 15, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The rocket launches to study the aurora have been postponed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Poker Flats Rocket Range.

The annual launches have fallen victim to budget problems at NASA, but don't expect the Poker Flats scientists to have time on their hands.

''We're still busy,'' range director Greg Walker said. ''We've got two operations that are 24-7 now.''

NASA normally launches several rockets from the site each year. In the United States, NASA's Sounding Rocket Program uses three sites: Poker Flat, White Sands in New Mexico and Wallops Island in Virginia.

NASA had 10 launches scheduled in Alaska for October through March.

The largest of the rockets that were to be launched into the ionosphere, which starts about 30 miles up, are four-stage vehicles that stand 80 feet tall, a meter in diameter and would go ''well in excess of 1,000 kilometers'' before splashing down in the Arctic Ocean, Walker said.

In addition, there were two four-stage rockets and six smaller vehicles, all of which would have landed short of the Arctic.

The missions have not been completely scratched.

''All the missions are still valid missions,'' Walker said, ''they just move back a year.''

The shortfall changed the most visible mission at Poker Flats this year from tracking rockets to tracking satellites, a growing source of activity at UAF. There are two tracking programs related to the national missile defense program going on now, including a commercial venture with the corporation Honeywell.

The rocket program is the most visible work done at Poker Flats, but it passed under the radar this year because of problems with NASA's bottom line.

Keith Koehler, public affairs specialist with NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, said he's not sure what happened to cause the shortfall this year.

The money shortage won't extend to UAF or the Geophysical Institute. NASA may have run out of money, but the bills are paid up at Poker Flat.

''NASA gives us a five-year contract,'' said Roger Smith, Geophysical Institute director. ''We're contractually provided whatever is needed for the range.''

Walker said the cancellation of the rocket season could have an economic impact on the town.

''We're still doing a lot for the economy in town, but not the big boom you would have if you brought 50 or 60 people to town,'' Walker said.

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