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Rocket Failures Cost United States Billions in Damage to Spy Satellites

By Kathy Sawyer
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

U.S. rockets have suffered six serious failures in the last nine months, destroying or rendering useless billions of dollars worth of spy, research and communications satellites, and raising concerns that the nation lacks reliable access to Earth orbit.

The failures, the worst string of launch disasters in more than a decade, last week triggered a general reassessment by military and civilian agencies and the aerospace industry. Some experts have begun to argue that the rocket reliability problem, which threatens U.S. national security and commercial space interests, is more serious than anyone realized and requires more urgent and high-level attention than it has gotten.

“I think this is probably one of the worst times in the launch history of the country,” said retired Air Force Gen. Howell M. Estes III, former head of the U.S. Space Command. “Even the old rockets aren’t working, and some of the newer rockets aren’t working. That’s the concern, and it comes at the very time we most need to get the launch costs down and assure access to space.”

General Richard B. Myers, head of the U.S. Space Command, said Friday that the loss of three national security satellites in the near term does “not jeopardize military operations; however, without aggressive action, the impact in the future could be significant.”

If the trend continues, it could jeopardize the ability of U.S. fighting forces to communicate, navigate, assess the weather, monitor hostile missile launches and gather intelligence.

Anxieties were heightened when three launches failed within the eight-day period that ended a week ago Tuesday. One of those malfunctions involved a Titan IV rocket, the launch vehicle the U.S. military depends on to put its highest priority satellites into orbit. The Titan IV has now suffered three failures in three flights since August, including a fiery explosion over the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station that destroyed a $1 billion top-secret intelligence satellite.

In addition to the Titan mishaps, a commercial Athena rocket lost a satellite in April, and last Tuesday, the new Delta III rocket suffered its second failure since August.

Coming nearly a half-century into the Space Age, a congressional staffer who specializes in space issues said, “It is sobering that after four decades, we’re still in a situation that (access to space) is not reliable.”

Investigators have not yet identified any common denominator in the various hardware and software failures so far uncovered as contributors to the accidents. Analysts said it is too early to know whether the sudden surge in launch failures is a mere coincidence, or something fixable in the system. Launching rockets is inherently risky and unforgiving, they say.