KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Rebounding from three successive major failures, the space agency Friday orbited a secret Air Force payload containing two satellites that tracked a rising rocket and then destroyed each other in a deliberate collision.
It was the most sophisticated flight test so far in President Reagan's space-based missile defense plan, but it was overshadowed by the fact that a launch had finally gone as planned. It was the first successful NASA launch in eight months.
Describing the flawless countdown and launch after the 11:08 a.m liftoff, Delta rocket program manager William A. Russell said: "I sat there and let the orchestra play, and it played perfectly."
Lifting off two seconds into a one-minute launch "window," the 116-foot-tall rocket fired the two-satellite package into a 255-mile orbit above the Earth.
An hour and a half after the launch in Florida, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched a small Aries rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, apparently to provide a tracking target for the satellites.
Lt. Col. Terry Monrad, a Strategic Defense Initiative spokesman, said the two payloads "used a variety of sensors to conduct observations during maneuvers from a variety of viewpoints."
Pentagon officials said the two satellites were then guided toward each other. "They impacted and destroyed each other" in a kinetic-energy experiment, an official said. Kinetic energy is a technology in which one projectile is hurled at another at great speed, demolishing the target.
Monrad said that "after 72 hours, 90% of the debris from the vehicles will have harmlessly re-entered the atmosphere."
Three Phases of Flight
The "Star Wars" strategic defense concept envisions attacking enemy missiles at any of three phases of flight: during launch, during their passage through the edge of space or during descent. Friday's experiment tested launch-intercept and mid-course-intercept capabilities.
The launch was the first successful flight for NASA since last January's Challenger shuttle disaster, which killed seven crew members and brought both the civilian and military space programs to a standstill.
That accident was followed April 18 by the explosion of an Air Force Titan rocket as it lifted off the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., with a secret reconnaissance satellite. Two weeks after that, a NASA Delta rocket like the one launched Friday was destroyed when its engine shut down prematurely during the launch of a weather satellite.
On top of that, the space agency was hit by launch failures of two small rockets like the one that was successfully fired Friday from White Sands.
'We Needed It'
"The agency needed it," launch director Charles D. Gay said of Friday's successes. "We needed it for morale purposes. The country needed it because we have had a string of failures. It was sorely needed."
Buoyed by having the Delta back in operation after several modifications following the May accident, NASA officials Friday gave the go-ahead to buy three more of the rockets, which would give the agency five of them for launches over the next three years.
Three will be used to carry "Star Wars" payloads for the Air Force, one will launch a U.S. weather satellite and the other will launch a Palapa communications satellite for Indonesia.
Friday's launch, which took place amid tight security, was enormously important to the embattled space agency. Nevertheless, NASA officials tried to treat it as routinely as Delta launches were treated before Challenger and the other failures.
The only top-ranking NASA official in Florida for the launch was shuttle chief Richard H. Truly, and he had come to the Kennedy Space Center for meetings concerning the shuttle program.
Although officials said the flight had put the NASA launch program back "in the groove," their joy was tempered by continuing layoffs.
As the launch crew readied the Delta for flight, more than 1,100 employees of NASA contractors began receiving layoff notices at the space center.
Another 1,100 were furloughed soon after the Challenger accident, but additional cutbacks became necessary when the planned resumption of shuttle flights slipped from mid-1987 into early 1988.
With manned flights temporarily at a standstill, NASA plans to mothball one of the two shuttle pads here and deactivate one of the three vehicles used to move shuttles from the assembly building to the launch pad.
In addition to the two Delta launch vehicles it has on hand, and the three it now plans to assemble, NASA also has three Atlas-Centaur rockets that it will use to launch military satellites.
One of the Atlas-Centaurs is scheduled for launch with a Navy satellite on Nov. 6. On Nov. 20, a Delta is scheduled to be launched with a GOES-G weather satellite identical to the $57-million observatory lost in the Delta failure last May.