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Rocket, Japanese Satellite Destroyed Shortly After Launch

April 19, 1991

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ A rocket carrying a Japanese broadcasting satellite was blown up by remote control after apparent engine trouble sent the $100 million mass of metal tumbling toward Earth.

The Air Force sent self-destruct commands six minutes after liftoff Thursday. The two-engine Centaur guidance system - with the satellite still attached - was detonated over the Atlantic Ocean about 240 miles from the launch site.

Rocket builder General Dynamics Corp. called the incident ″a great disappointment″ and the broadcaster said it could result in service disruptions.

″There is a risk in every venture and, unfortunately, these risks sometimes result in failure,″ said Allen Lovelace, chairman of General Dynamics Commercial Launch Services.

″It’s clearly a disappointing event for us but also for our customer,″ Lovelace said.

The explosion was too far away to be seen from shore.

It was a devastating blow to General Dynamics, which endured heavy financial losses in its rocket program last year. It also was bitter news for GE Astro Space Division, which built the satellite for the Japan Broadcasting Corp.

Japan Broadcasting officials said today in Tokyo that the loss of the satellite could result in periodic interruptions in service to its 4 million customers. The destroyed satellite was to have been a backup for one put into orbit last eyar that recently developed solar panel trouble, the broadcasting company said.

The Atlas-Centaur flight began smoothly enough.

The 14-story rocket blasted into an overcast sky from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:30 p.m. The launch was delayed 16 minutes because of high winds.

Lovelace said the problem occurred just after the 30-foot Centaur upper stage separated from the Atlas booster five minutes into the flight, as planned. Early evidence indicates one of the Centaur’s two liquid hydrogen and oxygen engines failed to ignite, causing the Centaur to lose speed and veer out of control, he said.

The maker of Centaur engines, United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney, said today in a statement it would not speculate on the cause of the accident until the investigation is completed.

″We are currently placing the full weight of our company’s resources at the disposal of General Dynamics and its investigation team,″ spokesman Bob Carroll said from Pratt & Whitney offices in West Palm Beach.

Japan’s national NHK television network ordered the satellite to replace one that was destroyed in the explosion of a European Ariane rocket in February 1990. The satellite lost Thursday, like the one demolished last year, was insured.

″It certainly was a service NHK was counting on,″ said Lawrence Greenwood, an official for GE Astro. ″We share in their disappointment because we very much wanted to have that in operation in the next 30 days.″

GE Astro officials talked to Japan Broadcasting executives today, and further telephone conferences were planned, said GE Astro spokeswoman Laura Eberle. She declined to give any details.

GE Astro had planned to pass ownership of the satellite to Japan Broadcasting once it was safely in orbit, Eberle said.

Japan Broadcasting’s customers have special tuners for receiving television broadcasts directly from the satellite that was placed in orbit last year. The spacecraft destroyed Thursday was to have been placed near the other satellite in a stationary orbit 22,300 miles over Borneo.

It was to have broadcast three television channels directly to Japanese homes.

A panel will investigate the accident, Lovelace said. He did not expect the problem to delay upcoming Atlas-Centaur launches since the next one is not until August.

It was the second commercial launch for General Dynamics. The first commercial Atlas-Centaur safely carried a NASA scientific satellite into orbit last July.

The rocket launched Thursday was virtually identical to the one that flew last summer, Lovelace said.

General Dynamics has been launching unmanned Atlas rockets since 1962. Thursday’s accident was the 11th failure in 70 Atlas-Centaur launches.

The last time an Atlas-Centaur failed was in 1987, when lightning struck the rocket shortly after liftoff.

General Dynamics announced its plans to enter the commercial launch business in 1987, a year after President Reagan banned commercial cargo from NASA’s manned space shuttle. His decree stemmed from the 1986 Challenger accident, which killed all seven crew members.

Despite its early optimism, General Dynamics lost $300 million in the Atlas program last year. That, along with termination of General Dynamics’ A-12 aircraft contract, contributed to a 1990 pretax loss of $811 million for the company.

General Dynamics Space Systems Division in San Diego attributed the Atlas losses to production problems, market uncertainty and fewer launches this year than planned.

Citing the fierce competition in the commercial launch business, company officials refused to break down the costs of Thursday’s launch, but said the entire price exceeded $100 million.

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