2006 Satellite Failure Remains a Mystery, NRO Says

06.25.09 | 1 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In February 2008, the U.S. fired a missile at an inoperable U.S. intelligence satellite that had failed shortly after launch in December 2006. The satellite was destroyed reportedly in order to prevent an intact reentry of its toxic hydrazine fuel tank.  But do we know why or how it failed in the first place?

“No,” the director of the National Reconnaissance Office told Congress last year, in newly disclosed responses (pdf) to questions for the record (p.89).

“After an exhaustive formal failure investigation, and three different independent review team investigations, the cause of the failure and what failed was not determined,” said Scott Large, then-director of the NRO.  “Our exhaustive analysis of the spacecraft design and test program did not identify the root cause of the failure,” Mr. Large said.  His remarks appeared in the record of a March 5, 2008 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee that was published this month.

“The era of Acquisition Reform is over,” Mr. Large also told Congress.  “It has left the NRO in a fragile state with a poor history of performance.”

On June 12, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, with concurrence of the DNI, appointed retired Air Force Gen. Bruce Carlson as the 17th director of the National Reconnaissance Office.