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URGENT Rocket, Japanese Satellite Destroyed Shortly After Launch

April 19, 1991

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ A rocket carrying a Japanese broadcasting satellite tumbled out of control shortly after liftoff Thursday and both were destroyed in a $100 million disaster.

The Air Force sent self-destruct commands to the upper stage of the Atlas rocket six minutes after launch once the trouble became evident.

The satellite still was attached to the upper stage, which is called a Centaur.

Debris fell into the Atlantic Ocean.

Allen Lovelace, chairman of the rocket’s builder, General Dynamics Commercial Launch Services, called the accident ″clearly a disappointing event for us, but also for our customer.″

The problem occurred just after the Centaur separated from the Atlas booster as planned. Early evidence indicated that only one of the Centaur’s two liquid hydrogen and oxygen engines ignited, causing the Centaur to lose speed and veer out of control, Lovelace said.

Contact with the spacecraft immediately was lost.

The 14-story, unmanned 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.

The satellite and rocket were blown up about 240 miles away.

″The vehicles (rockets) are not 100 percent reliable. In that respect, it really has been in part anticipated,″ Lovelace said. ″But it really does not deter us in our confidence in the services that we provide and the vehicles that provide that service.″

Lovelace said an investigative panel immediately was formed to look into the accident.

Everything appeared to be going well until a launch commentator abruptly announced the trouble over a loudspeaker.

It was the second commercial launch for General Dynamics, which suffered big financial losses last year in its Atlas program.

Built for the Japan Broadcasting Corp., the satellite aboard the rocket was to relay three television channels directly to homes in Japan once it became operational in two months. Japan Broadcasting currently serves its 4 million customers with a spacecraft placed in orbit last year.

The satellite was to have been placed in a stationary orbit 22,300 miles over Borneo.

Japan Broadcasting lost a satellite in February 1990 when a European Ariane rocket exploded over the Atlantic Ocean just after liftoff. Its newest satellite, launched at a cost of more than $100 million, was fully insured.

Ron Maehl of GE Astro Space Division, which made the satellite, refused at a briefing Wednesday to elaborate on the $100 million-plus price tag for the spacecraft and launch. He would say only that the rocket cost slightly more than the satellite.

Charlie Lloyd, vice president of General Dynamics’ commercial launch services, also declined to break down the costs. He cited the fierce competitiveness of the business.

The last time an Atlas-Centaur failed was in 1987, when lightning struck the rocket shortly after liftoff. A Centaur also failed in 1984 because of a fuel tank leak.

General Dynamics has been launching the rockets since 1962. The company announced in 1987, a year after President Reagan banned commercial cargo from NASA’s space shuttles, that it was getting into the commercial launch business.

Thursday’s accident was the 11th failure in 70 Atlas-Centaur launches.

The Atlas program lost $300 million 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 problems starting the production line back up, market uncertainty and fewer launches this year than planned.

Lloyd said before Thursday’s launch that General Dynamics had firm commitments for 36 of 60 launches planned this decade. The company expected to invest $500 million in the Atlas program, he said.

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