By Douglas J. Gillert American Forces Press Service WASHINGTON -- This time the interceptor came close -- possibly within 30 meters of its target Hera missile. But for the [sixth] time, the THAAD failed to hit its target. Following the launch from White Sands Missile Range, N.M., March 29 at 7:13 a.m. Eastern Time, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense interceptor lost track of the target Hera, sped past it and self-destructed. Officials here said the flight provided useful data for future development and expressed optimism that a successful intercept is in sight and could occur as soon as the next scheduled attempt in May. While most of the Pentagon press corps was more interested in Milosevic than missiles, a smattering of reporters queried officials about the launch and the future of theater missile defense. They heard Air Force Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles and Army Lt. Gen. Paul Kern praise the morning launch for what it accomplished, not criticize it for its failure. "We had good performance of the various subsystems," said Lyles, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. He said the interceptor's energy management and information systems worked as planned, and the interceptor made nominal separation from its booster on schedule. "However, one minute into the flight, we lost telemetry," he said. "From radar data and airborne sensors, we think we came within 30 meters of having an intercept." He said officials won't know for sure how close they came until they've evaluated all the flight data. The test occurred at high altitude over the central portion of White Sands. The Hera target, which simulated a Scud ballistic missile, was launched seven minutes before the intercept test. All THAAD elements participated, demonstrating integrated performance of the entire system. The latest test also incorporated an improved seeker and corrected other problems encountered on earlier intercept attempts, BMDO officials said. Kern defended the ongoing THAAD program against congressional concerns that it's costing too much and taking too long to develop. "This is an extremely critical part of our nation's defenses," said the military deputy assistant to the Army assistant secretary for research, development and acquisition. Noting a successful intercept of a Hera by the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile at White Sands March 15, Kern said he's convinced the Army and American industry will ultimately succeed with the THAAD program. "We are very close to complete success," he said. He said the Army will test the THAAD again in late May and twice more in June. The Pentagon also is interested in other theater defensive systems, including the Navy's Theater Wide upper-tier system. Kern said the competition for effective theater defense isn't, however, an either-or proposition. "From the Army's perspective, we want both [THAAD and Navy systems]," he said. Each failure of the THAAD costs the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space, $15 million in contract-imposed penalties, Lyles said. Failure to hit by June 20 will incur an additional $20 million penalty, and repeated failures could cost Lockheed $75 million by year's end, he said.