VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE — Rubber sealant "O" rings like the one that apparently failed during January's ill-fated Challenger space shuttle mission and the possibility of sabotage will be major concerns in the Air Force investigation into the explosion of a Titan 34-D rocket above a launch pad here, the base commander said Saturday.
"We will be looking at everything . . . (the solid fuel) boosters, rings, propellants and electronics," Maj. Gen. Jack L. Watkins, commander of the 1st Strategic Aerospace Division here, told a news conference at the base. "Sabotage is something we can't discount. . . .
"We had been watching this one anxiously," he said. "Coming hard on the heels of the Challenger loss, there was more apprehension. . . . It's a setback."
Sources close to the space program have said that Friday morning's loss of the $65-million Air Force rocket, which was believed to be carrying a secret spy satellite, has dealt a major blow to a program already crippled by the crash of NASA's Challenger and the failure of another Titan 34-D here last August.
"We won't be launching Titans from Vandenberg until we know what caused Friday's explosion," said Air Force Capt. Rick Sanford, a public information officer at the base. "The (shuttle) launches from Florida won't be taking place either."
The space shuttle and the Titan rocket are the two principal launch vehicles for the U.S. satellite program and now both have been halted by accidents.
Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lindsey, commander of the Eastern Space and Missile Center at Patrick Air Force Base in Coco Beach, Fla., will head the investigative missile mishap board that will look into the Vandenberg blast. The board was established a few hours after Friday's explosion at this seaside base about 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Watkins said the board will study all available photographs, videotapes and telemetry data in an effort to determine why the 1.5-million-pound rocket exploded in a mushroom cloud of flame and toxic smoke at about 10:45 a.m. Friday, roughly 5 seconds after liftoff from Space Launch Complex 4.
Although John Boyd, a spokesman for Martin Marietta, principal contractor for the rocket's core vehicle, said the short duration of the flight means that there will be relatively little telemetry for the investigative board to review, Watkins estimated Saturday that it could take "several months" for the board to make any determination of what caused the accident.
Watkins declined to speculate on why the rocket crashed and refused to discuss repeated reports that the Titan was carrying a critically needed KH-11 reconnaissance satellite.
But the senior base commander did say that one concern is the "ring connectors on the solid rocket boosters"--"O" rings that form a seal between the multiple segments of the solid fuel rocket boosters strapped to the Titan to give it the extra lift needed to put packages as heavy as the 25,000-pound spy satellite into orbit.
Solid Fuel Boosters
The two solid fuel boosters provide about 2.8 million pounds of thrust during liftoff. About 97 seconds into the flight, the rocket's main liquid fuel engines ignite and 10 seconds later the boosters are jettisoned.
The boosters are built in segments, and the segments are sealed with the rubber "O" rings. The boosters are manufactured by United Technologies, Chemical Systems Division of Sunnyvale, Calif.
An "O" ring on one of the space shuttle Challenger's segmented solid fuel booster rockets is believed to have failed, allowing the fuel to burn through the rocket casing and causing the explosion that killed all seven crew members on board. The shuttle's solid fuel boosters were built in Brigham City, Utah, by Morton Thiokol Inc.
Watkins said another concern of investigators will be sabotage, explaining that "it's one of those things we must always take into consideration."
He added, however, that the Air Force is unlikely to comment on any findings on this subject, because "things like terrorist activities and sabotage would probably not be discussed in public."
Damaged Launch Pad
Friday's explosion damaged the launch pad, destroyed several government vehicles and showered the surrounding area with smoldering debris that ignited several brush fires and blocked Southern Pacific Railroad's coastal line for several hours.
The immense cloud--saturated with highly corrosive unburned liquid fuel from the Titan's main engines--spread along the ground and soared to an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet before drifting slowly across the southeast quadrant of the base and out to sea.
Although no one was reported seriously injured, Air Force officials said 74 people--63 military personnel, 9 civilians and 2 Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputies--were examined at the base hospital after complaints of burning eyes and skin.