Destroyed Kodiak missile blew itself up

Posted: Thursday, May 30, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Army missile that exploded shortly after launch from Kodiak in November blew itself up ''inadvertently'' while a safety command was being transferred from the ground to a circling airplane, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

The failure of the $4 million project was the first at the state-owned Kodiak Launch Complex. The three-stage solid-fuel rocket, a modified Polaris missile, was to have flown parallel to the West Coast and splashed down off Mexico, testing missile-defense radar in California as it passed.

Instead, 56 seconds into its morning flight, it blew up, sending debris into the Coast Guard-designated safety zone south of Kodiak. There were no injuries. Officials said environmental damage was minimal.

At the time, Pat Ladner, executive director of the Alaska Aerospace Development Corp., said the missile was destroyed by the range safety officer when telemetry contact was lost.

As it turned out, the safety officer indeed pushed the destruct button. However, at that moment the missile was already in shreds and falling toward the water, incapable of sending telemetry signals, said Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Lehner of the Missile Defense Agency.

Lehner, who issued the results of an investigating board Wednesday, said the missile was right on track after it was launched at 8:12 a.m. Nov. 9. As planned, safety control was transferred from a ground-based safety officer to one with a better view aboard a P-3 Orion turboprop flying circles downrange.

''When they did the electronic handoff to aircraft, something electronically caused a signal to be sent to destroy the missile,'' Lehner said. Investigators were unable to determine whether the false signal was triggered by a computer software failure, an improper radio signal or a misinterpreted command by the missile's guidance system, he said.

A moment later, before the missile's destruction could be confirmed but after it stopped sending data, the safety officer on the Orion sent the irrelevant destruct command, Lehner said.

Missiles typically carry a string of high explosive down their length.

''The missile doesn't exactly blow itself to smithereens. The long string cracks the rocket motor case and keeps the debris from going all over the place,'' Lehner said.

The 38-foot missile was the first of up to four such launches in support of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense segment of the U.S. Missile Defense System. The other launches have not yet been scheduled.

Lehner said procedures have been changed to prevent a recurrence.

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