Ultra Secret US Spy Satellite
And Rocket Explode -
Billion Dollar Loss
By Duffin McGee
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - A Titan 4A rocket carrying a top-secret spy satellite exploded in a fireball of debris and smoke just after blastoff from Cape Canaveral Wednesday, the Air Force said. With the rocket's value estimated at $300 million and the satellite's at $800 million to $1 billion, the failure was one of the costliest in the history of the U.S. space program. The unmanned rocket, built by Lockheed Martin Corp, lifted off at 7:30 a.m. EDT carrying the satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). It began to self-destruct about 42 seconds later, the Air Force said. There were no reports of injuries. In a statement, the Air Force said the Titan rocket had begun to self-destruct, prompting ground crews to destroy it. ``U.S. Air Force range safety officials sent destruct signals to further break up the rocket and mitigate possible damage from falling debris,'' the Air Force said. Brigadier General Randy Starbuck told a news conference the Air Force had no information on what had caused the mishap. He warned anyone who came across shreds of the doomed rocket or its ultra-secret cargo to keep away from it. He said helicopters were surveying the water off the Atlantic Coast where debris fell. ``There is debris out there in the water. It should be considered hazardous material. If someone sees that debris out there on the water, please don't pick it up,'' he said, and asked anyone who saw debris to contact the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, south of Cape Canaveral. The rocket was off the ground and over the ocean when it exploded in an impressive blaze of light and smoke. In video taken of the launch, it appeared to tip over just before the explosion. The plume caused by its load of toxic fuel drifted out to sea and dispersed after the blast, eliminating danger to coastal residents, officials said. ``Oh no,'' the commentator said as the rocket burst. After taking a deep breath, he said: ``At this time it appears we have had a major malfunction of the vehicle. We have had an explosion.'' There were two or three distinct loud bangs, setting off car alarms and burglar alarms in nearby Cocoa Beach. Debris continued to arc up and out before it fell toward the ocean. A press site about 7 miles from the launch pad was hurriedly evacuated just after the rocket blew. Space analysts said the Titan was carrying an eavesdropping satellite, code-named Vortex, that would have listened in on military and government communications in global hotspots such as the Middle East, India and Pakistan, and China. The satellite was designed and built by the NRO, which would have operated it had it reached orbit. A similar satellite was launched in May on another Titan rocket. The launch had originally been scheduled for July, but was postponed so ripped insulation on the rocket's upper stage could be repaired. On Wednesday, launch had been set for 6:02 a.m. EDT, but was delayed because of problems fueling the rocket, the Air Force said. The boosters that were the only rockets firing at the time of the explosion were made by United Technologies Corp., a subcontractor for Lockheed Martin, a Patrick Air Force Base spokeswoman said. The 20-story rocket was laden with nearly 500,000 pounds of highly toxic fuel. Under launch rules, the Air Force does not launch Titans if there is any chance that propellants could be blown toward populated areas in the event of an accident. The last Titan 4 rocket explosion was at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in August 1993. One of that rocket's solid rocket boosters exploded a few seconds after liftoff. The Titan rocket is the most powerful unmanned launch vehicle used by the United States. The Titan 4A that blew up Wednesday was the last of that particular model scheduled for launch. The air force introduced last year an improved version of the rocket, also made by Lockheed Martin.