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Strike Three: Another Military Satellite Fails

Space: For the third time since August, a Defense Department launch has gone awry. The total cost to taxpayers is $3 billion.

May 02, 1999|MARCIA DUNN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A military communication satellite worth $800 million ended up in the wrong orbit Friday, the third failed mission in a row for the Air Force's most powerful rocket.

The three strikes have cost taxpayers $3 billion.

"When we have three failures in a row of any system . . . something is not right," said Brig. Gen. Randy Starbuck, who is in charge of the Cape Canaveral Air Station.

Everything appeared to go well as the Titan IV rocket lifted off early Friday afternoon, delayed 1 1/2 hours by minor technical problems and overnight thunderstorms. But seven hours later at a hastily convened news conference, Air Force officials said the Defense Department's newest Milstar satellite was stranded in a lopsided orbit thousands of miles too low.

Air Force controllers will try to boost the satellite using on-board fuel and thrusters. Starbuck said it was too soon to speculate about what went wrong.

The first hint of trouble came a half-hour into the flight.

An upper-stage Centaur rocket was supposed to boost the satellite into a 22,300-mile-high orbit but did not fire properly, Starbuck said. There also may have been other problems earlier in the flight, he said.

A different type of upper-stage motor malfunctioned three weeks ago, leaving a missile-warning satellite in a useless orbit. In August, one of the rockets and a spy satellite were destroyed in an explosion shortly after liftoff.

Starbuck said there appear to be no similarities among the three failures. It's been decades since the same kind of rocket failed three times in a row.

The satellite was to have joined two less sophisticated Milstars already in orbit. In all, the Air Force planned six such satellites to provide secure, jam-proof communication between U.S. military commanders and troops in the field.

Air Force officials stressed that Friday's mishap will not hamper the military's communications or the nation's security.

The Milstar program was criticized by the General Accounting Office last fall as outdated and inefficient. The satellites were conceived during the Cold War and designed to withstand the radiation from a nuclear blast.

Lockheed Martin Corp. built both the satellite and the Titan IV rocket.

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