A military explosives disposal team has been working on the state-owned Kodiak Launch Complex at Narrow Cape to collect and destroy solid rocket fuel left over from the launch Monday that ended in an explosion when an operator triggered a self-destruct mechanism just after liftoff.
Alaska Aerospace Corporation officials who manage the site announced Thursday that the team would be cleaning up and disposing of rocket debris, including through controlled demolition, starting Friday. A military spokesman said unspent solid rocket fuel was the concern.
And while the Army said Monday the test was terminated to “ensure public safety,” an official in charge of the mission said Thursday that there had been no risk to the public.
Sitting atop the rocket was what military officials call a hypersonic weapon system, a glider of the type they hope can someday deliver a blast to a target anywhere on Earth in less than an hour by traveling faster than five times the speed of sound. The glider blown up Monday was a test vehicle not carrying any explosives, corporation officials said. It was supposed to hit Kwajalein Atoll, 3,900 miles southwest of Kodiak, but likely traveled a little farther than the length of a football field.
Many lingering questions about the aborted launch went unanswered Thursday, as the Alaska Aerospace board of directors heard a report from a test overseer with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the launch customer running the mission.
The U.S. Army had leased the complex for about $5 million to conduct the Monday test, its second for the hypersonic weapon and the first that has ended in failure. With Alaska Aerospace still under contract and a full damage assessment and investigation yet to be completed, that bill could grow.
Within four seconds of the 48-foot rocket lifting off about 12:15 a.m. Monday, a flight control operator terminated the test and caused it to self-destruct in what island residents described as a loud boom and an burst of light that lit up the night sky. In a written statement Monday, military officials said the test was aborted to guarantee public safety and that nobody had been injured.
But the civilian technical director of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, Julie Schumacher, said Thursday at the board of directors’ meeting that at no point was the public in danger nor was the test terminated because of a risk to public safety.
Part of preparing for such a launch is setting safety parameters that follow strict, standardized guidelines, which the flight operators followed, Schumacher said.
“We wanted to make sure it didn’t exceed the safety boundaries that were established,” Schumacher said.
Schumacher said it was a mischaracterization to say the launch was terminated because of a potential risk to the public.
“It never got to that point, she said.
Some parts of the mission and the investigation to learn what went wrong are classified and some aspects are not yet known, Schumacher said.
“It will take a while to fully determine the cause of the failure, but we will eventually find the cause of the failure. This is part of the nature of flight testing and developing new systems,” she said.
Schumacher and John Cummings — a Space and Missile Defense Command spokesman based in Huntsville, Alabama, to whom reporters were asked to direct inquiries — did not answer several questions posed to them outside of the meeting related to the failed launch and explosion. That included whether the rocket was heading north toward mainland Alaska, as some photos of the aftermath seemed to indicate the debris traveled, and what anomaly the flight operators were alerted to that caused them to terminate the launch.
Schumacher and Cummings also did not say if the experimental weapon payload had been completely destroyed or if pieces were left intact.
State Sen. Gary Stevens, who sits on the Alaska Aerospace board as a non-voting, ex-officio member, asked Schumacher about the timing of detonating the rocket and whether waiting slightly longer would have resulted in less damage to the complex’s buildings.
There is an extensive plan that is followed precisely, Schumacher said.
“That is practiced and rehearsed well ahead of time,” she said. “Particulars on timing are mission dependent. I really can’t get into specifics on the timing.”
Board member Lindsay Knight, a Kodiak businessman, asked what specifically happened to warrant triggering the rocket’s built-in self-destruct mechanism.
“I’m sorry, I can’t comment,” Schumacher said.
Craig Campbell, president and CEO of Alaska Aerospace, said the rocket was roughly 100 or 200 yards from its launch pad when it was detonated, and debris from the exploded rocket did not leave complex property.
The complex’s general manager, John Zbitnoff, described the damage at the Thursday board meeting using pictures that passengers on overflights had taken of the launch complex Monday, before the Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice to airmen prohibiting civilian pilots from flying within two miles of the damaged launch pad. The photos had appeared in the Daily Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and were credited as such in the Alaska Aerospace slides presented in the board meeting.
Campbell and Zbitnoff said in a later interview the corporation has its own photos that it would not release Thursday.
“They’re actually for risk management, for the insurance company,” Campbell said.
Asked if the Army was keeping launch complex staff from entering the property, Campbell said some areas were still off limits Thursday for safety reasons.
“The customer does not want us in the way of the work they’re doing,” he said. “They’ve said, ‘Alaska Aerospace, you can’t go down there. That area has to be cleared first.’ And it’s still a federal issue, because those are federal pieces on the ground. So they’re still in control of that.”
The damage the complex managers were aware of Thursday included sheet metal siding blown off a building used to cover the launchpad and metal pieces and insulation ripped off another nearby building by the same shockwave, Zbitnoff said, describing it as “skin damage.”
It might look like a lot of debris, Campbell said, but the buildings are not complex structures. Zbitnoff said they’re mostly designed to keep weather from affecting work on the rockets as they’re moved to the launchpad and sitting on the pad.
It is very early in their assessment to say how much repairs might cost or who should pay for the repairs, Campbell said. That would take weeks, at least, and possibly months, he said.
“Our facilities worked fine, and now they’re damaged,” he said.
Stevens said he understood there was insurance covering the launch complex, but he said the state Legislature had appropriated “enormous” funding for its capital projects and operations.
"It would appear to be that the (Department of Defense) would have some significant responsibility to repairs," Stevens said.
Campbell said the military must also clear the area before state and federal agencies can look at any impact to the environment.
Schumacher said an earlier environmental assessment included the possibility that the rocket would have to be destroyed mid-flight.
“There were no significant environmental impacts that were identified, even for the case such as we experienced earlier this week,” she said. “We care about this area and your facility, and we will help ensure that any issues are resolved.”
Kodiak resident Carolyn Heitman, a longtime critic of the rocket complex, told the board of directors she was concerned about the risk of chemicals getting into streams and lakes in the area.
“As you know, this is one of the worst fears us local residents have had, is that this would happen,” Heitman said. “The concern is the pollution to the waters.”
“It’s only common sense with an explosion like that, those pieces had to have come down.”
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter. Contact him at 907-770-0722 or follow on Twitter: @kcgrove.