Can We Stop a Nuke?
From the impossible dream of a space-based shield, missile defense has come down to Earth. But will it work?
- By Ben Iannotta
- Air & Space magazine, May 2007
Missile Defense Agency
(Page 2 of 7)
Since they were initiated in 1997, midcourse defense test flights have had mixed results. Between October 1999 and July 2001, three of five intercept tests had ended in success. But there had been a four-year lull in midcourse intercept launches, and only failure when they restarted.
The last time the missiles flew, in December 2002, the kill vehicle did not separate from the interceptor that carried it. Two years of work followed, during which Obering took over the Missile Defense Agency. Engineers from Raytheon Company cleaned up the design and began production of the kill vehicles at their Tucson, Arizona facility.
The first midcourse intercept of Obering’s tenure was supposed to take place on December 15, 2004, but on that day the interceptor never appeared. A launch computer refused to let the interceptor leave its test silo on Kwajalein. The $10 million test target, already arcing through the fringes of space, fell into the sea.
Orbital Sciences Corporation, the interceptor’s Dulles, Virginia manufacturer, had programmed the rocket with the tolerances of a satellite launcher. When a few status reports failed to reach the interceptor’s flight control computer, it aborted the launch as though there were an expensive satellite aboard. The problem was fixed by writing a new line of computer code.
Obering’s team tried again in February 2005. This time the interceptor refused to leave the silo when one of three support arms designed to keep the rocket upright during an earthquake failed to retract. Another $10 million target was wasted. Shoddy work at Kwajalein was blamed for allowing saltwater to seep into the base of the silo, making the air humid and causing glue in the support arms’ hinges to swell.
After that, even the most vocal supporters of the missile defense plan advocated by President George W. Bush blasted Obering’s agency. One Republican congressman from Alaska, Terry Everett, then chairman of the subcommittee that oversees missile defense, declared that he and his fellow members “were disgusted by the failings, because to be honest with you, it didn’t appear to be brain science.”
Inside the missile agency’s headquarters in September 2006, the red line of the target grew on the display map for 16 minutes and 40 seconds before a blue line appeared on the southern California coast: A brigade with the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command had launched a single long-range interceptor from a silo at the Vandenberg base. So far, so good—at least the interceptor was airborne.
IF THE UNITED STATES comes under attack, plans call for interceptor missiles in Air Force bases at Vandenberg and Fort Greely in Alaska to roar out of holes in the ground to the fringes of space, where they would release the 155-pound kill vehicles.