Despite a world of advice to the contrary, the North Koreans launched their Taepodong-2 or Unha rocket yesterday morning. Recent reports are that the first two stages operated correctly but the third stage failed. Reading between the lines a bit, it might have failed to ignite rather than exploding. This seems to be a replay of the Taepodong-1 test satellite launch attempt: In that case, both stages one and two seemed to operate properly but the third stage apparently exploded and the satellite never entered orbit. (That failure did not discourage the North Koreans, who announced that the whole thing was a great success and the satellite was up there. My bet is they will do the same thing this time.)
So was the test a failure? Not at all. The reason the world is worried about this test is not because we are worried about competition in the satellite launch business. (Good luck to them!) The world worries because the launcher the North Koreans used is a Taepodong-2, which most everyone believes is their next step up toward a long-range ballistic missile. By taking a warhead off and putting a small third stage and a satellite on top, they might call it a space launcher but the first two stages are exactly the same. The last time the configuration was tested, it exploded 40 seconds into its flight and that flight was a clear failure. No doubt, the North Koreans would have been happier this time with a little satellite up there broadcasting patriotic songs but everything they needed to test for a military missile appears to have worked in yesterday’s test. From the military perspective, the test at this point seems to have been largely successful, in that it demonstrated what needed to be demonstrated and the North Koreans got the information they needed to get.
Does this mean they have a missile that can reach the United States? Well, not really. This test is a big step forward for them but one test does not make a ballistic missile program. There is much more for them to do. We have no idea what they judge the accuracy of the missile and they have not tested an appropriate reentry vehicle. This missile test is an very unfortunate development. I wish the North Koreans had more finese. But it does not give them a ballistic missile capability yet.
Addendum: More information is coming it. Apparently, not only did the satellite fail to enter orbit, but the second stage fell short of the predicted impact area. That suggests that the second stage failed. It could even be that the third stage operated successfully–separated, ignited, guidance worked, and so forth–but without the proper speed and altitude provided by the second stage, it would have no chance of making orbit. If this turns out to be the case, then the conclusions above have to be modified and this is a more limited step forward for the North Korean Taepodong-2 program.