America’s Mightiest Rocket Carries Military Cargo
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ America’s mightiest unmanned space rocket, a Titan 4, blasted off today with a secret military payload.
It was the second launch of a Titan 4. The giant rocket boosted a missile- warning satellite into orbit in June 1989.
The rocket was launched at 1:22 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, lighting up the sky as it thundered toward orbit.
The Air Force refused to discuss or even acknowledge the flight until about 20 minutes later, when a statement was issued. The payload was not disclosed.
″This was an important launch for America’s space program,″ said Martin C. Faga, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for space. ″The Titan 4 is the largest booster ever launched by the Air Force. ... The Titan 4 provides our nation a vital path to space for critical national security payloads.″
John Pike, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ space policy project, said the rocket’s cargo probably is a $500 million electronic eavesdropping satellite capable of intercepting missile telemetry and radio communications.
A less likely possibility, Pike said, is that it is a missile-warning satellite.
Martin Marietta Space Launch Systems has a $7.1 billion contract with the Air Force to supply 41 Titan 4 rockets, with an option for eight more. The Air Force ordered the rocket in 1985 to lessen its dependency on NASA’s manned space shuttle.
The shuttle is the most powerful cargo carrier used by the United States, capable of putting a 52,000-pound payload into orbit. The Titan 4, an expendable launch vehicle, can lift a 39,000-pound payload into low Earth orbit or carry 10,000 pounds to stationary orbit 22,300 miles high.
The Titan 4 stands 20 stories tall and is powered by two liquid fuel main engines and two solid rocket boosters. One of the engine’s nozzles malfunctioned in last year’s launch, but the other nozzle compensated and the rocket remained on target.
The Air Force plans to launch future Titan 4 rockets from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Ten Titan 4 rockets originally were to have been launched by October. The U.S. General Accounting Office criticized the program in a report last month, citing schedule delays and $209 million in cost overruns as of July 1989.
Martin Marietta said it is working to improve production and cut costs.
The Denver company encountered problems with a commercial Titan 3 launch in March. An engineering design error caused the rocket’s cargo, an Intelsat communications satellite, to be placed in a uselessly low orbit.
Intelsat’s board of governors will decide at a meeting in Barbados this week and next whether to pay the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for a shuttle rescue mission, which could exceed $130 million. The Washington- based consortium of 119 countries operates a global communications system.
A commercial Titan 3 is scheduled to carry another Intelsat communications satellite into orbit on June 21.