The first flight test of a Star Wars weapon ended Friday when the anti-missile system, built by McDonnell Douglas Space Systems in Huntington Beach, accidentally detonated before separating from its booster.
But before that happened, nine of the 10 test objectives were accomplished, said Alan Sherer, manager of the Army's High Endoatmospheric Defense Interceptor, or HEDI, project.
Sherer characterized the morning test launch at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico as "very successful."
McDonnell Douglas officials could not be reached Friday for comment.
C.E. Grubbs, an independent defense industry consultant in Newport Beach, said the failure of the last step of the test should not pose a problem for the giant defense contractor.
"In the early stage of designing any missile system, just getting it off the ground is a success," Grubbs said. "The fact that their telemetry apparently worked is grounds to call Ripley's 'Believe It Or Not.' " The telemetry is the electronic linkage between a missile and ground control.
McDonnell Douglas, which has received about $300 million to develop the missile interceptor, has about 180 employees in Huntington Beach assigned to the HEDI project. But Space Systems officials said last December that the firm will lay off or reassign 60 workers this year. Budget cuts also will delay a number of other test flights.
HEDI is designed to stop nuclear warheads before they reach ground targets. It is one of the multiple layers planned for the Star Wars program, formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Sherer said the greatest successes in Friday's launch were getting the HEDI to cool down after firing it through the atmosphere at high speeds and the separation of a shroud that protects the HEDI warhead from heat and pressure during the launch.
"No one has ever separated a shroud at these kinds of velocities and temperatures, and no one has attempted to cool an endo-interceptor at these kinds of speeds and velocities," Sherer said.
The final phase of the test called for the missile "to go into a kind of coast phase and then separate the kill vehicle and then blow the warhead. We didn't get to do that separation of the kill vehicle" because it detonated, Sherer said.
The HEDI flight test was the first since the Pentagon launched the six-year, $383-million project in January, 1986, to design a weapon against enemy warheads in their last stage of flight.
HEDI mates a sophisticated warhead--the "smart rock"--to a modified Sprint rocket. The Sprint was built for the U.S. Safeguard anti-ballistic missile defense in the 1960s, but has been mothballed since the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with the Soviet Union.
When it nears its target, the modified Sprint rocket would eject the smart rock, which would use an infrared seeker and its own maneuvering jets to home in for the kill. The rock would explode like a hand grenade to demolish the warhead with lethal pellets.
The HEDI rockets are the lower-technology end of the Star Wars system, which would include several defenses against enemy missiles: hitting them in their boost phase shortly after launch, intercepting them in mid-course when they cast off their warheads and decoys in space, and attacking them in the terminal phase when the warheads re-enter the atmosphere.
HEDI would handle the terminal phase. Particle beams and laser zappers usually associated with Star Wars technology would make up the other layers of the system.
Space Systems is the prime contractor on the HEDI program. Hughes Missile Systems Group and Aerojet Technical Systems are the major subcontractors.