WASHINGTON -- An Air Force rocket carrying a spy satellite blew up shortly after launching Wednesday, creating a $1 billion Roman candle that showered debris and sparks across a wide swath of ocean and dealing a setback to the country's space-reconnaissance program.
The Titan 4A rocket blew up about 40 seconds after its 7:30 a.m. liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla., into a hazy sky.
The Air Force said the rocket's nose dipped slightly just before the craft turned into a fireball some 20,000 feet up. Seconds later, flight controllers triggered another explosion by radio to break the falling debris into smaller, less dangerous chunks.
Air Force officials said they had no idea what caused the accident. An investigative board will be convened at once, they said.
Investigators are sure to focus on problems that occurred during fueling operations, when a stuck valve hampered "topping off" of the rocket's upper stage with liquid hydrogen and delayed the launching for 89 minutes.
The upper stage was meant to carry the satellite into orbit, once the candlesticklike solid-fuel boosters on the lower stage had burned out. The solid-fuel boosters were about half-exhausted when he craft blew up, officials said.
No one was injured, and there appeared to be no property damage on land, officials said. Even so, the mood around the cape was one of dismay.
"Oh, no," the launch announcer muttered as the Titan exploded. "It appears that we've had a malfunction of the vehicle."
The blast could be heard miles away and set off car alarms in the region. Its echoes may be also felt in Pentagon planning rooms.
The satellite was intended to monitor air-defense radar networks and track missile tests, according to an official intimately familiar with the project who spoke on condition of anonymity. While not a catastrophe, the loss dashes several years' of planning and could delay further satellite launches.
"My initial thought is, 'We're hurt,"' Brig. Gen. Randall Starbuck, commander of the 45th Space Wing at Cape Canaveral, said at a somber news conference. "This is a sad day for the United States Air Force."
The Titan 4A rocket, largest in the Air Force's arsenal, was carrying a Vortex-class satellite originally designed to eavesdrop on communications like cellular telephone calls but now valuable for pinpointing radar and missile activity, said the official familiar with the project. Russia and post-Cold War problem regions like Iraq and the Pakistan-India border would have been among its surveillance targets, he said.
The satellite was to have been deployed for the National Reconnaissance Office, a Pentagon agency that operates some three dozen spy satellites. "We are confident we can still do our job," said a spokesman for the agency, Rick Oborn. He declined to elaborate.
John Pike, a missile expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, agreed with Oborn's assessment, and said the agency already had satellites in orbit doing some of the work that the one launched today was supposed to do.
Even so, Pike said, the accident was significant. "Everybody's collection and exploitation plans for next year assumed this satellite was going to be operating by the end of the fiscal year," he said. "Well, that's not going to happen."
The next Titan is to be launched from Cape Canaveral in December, but it may be delayed. Starbuck said the Air Force would not put up another until the cause of the accident is found. "We will launch no rocket before its time," he said.
Pike, whose private Washington-based organization studies technology issues, agreed that Wednesday's loss could exceed $1 billion. Reconnaissance satellites can cost $600 million to $800 million, he said. The rocket builder, Lockheed Martin, has a $16 billion contract to build about 40 rockets for the government, meaning an average cost of $400 million.
The 20-story Titan 4A launched Wednesday was the last of its kind. The next generation of Titans, the 4B, has fewer parts and thus might be less prone to malfunction, Pike said.
The Titan that blew up Wednesday was the second to explode after launch. The first blew up shortly after its launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 1993.
Lockheed officials said Wednesday's failure would have no impact on the company, because it sets aside money to cover launching failures and is insured against launching-related personal injury or property claims.
Lockheed's stock declined one-half a point, to 95 1/4, in trading Wednesday on Wall Street. The government must bear the cost of the lost satellite.
Despite its ignominious end today, the Titan 4A has been a reliable workhorse. It had only the two failures in 24 launchings -- an average that Pike said was pretty good. "It's the cost of doing business in space," he said.
The unspent solid fuel is toxic, and officials cautioned people who may find debris not to handle it.
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company