The dramatic failure of the Conestoga rocket launched Monday from a private launch pad in Virginia was just the latest in string of failures by U.S. industry as it works to develop a reliable launch vehicle for small satellites.
As U.S. satellites wait on the ground, and Russia maneuvers to capture a share of a growing commercial market, three U.S. companies have tried five times to launch small rockets into orbit in the past 16 months.
Four attempts failed.
"The record of small launchers is not terribly good at the moment," said Dr. Jerry Grey, director of aerospace and science policy at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
"It's kind of discouraging because we know a lot more [about rocketry] than we did. It's been very disappointing to most people in the business," he said.
At 6:04 p.m. Monday, the 100-ton Conestoga rocket designed by EER Systems Inc. of Seabrook, Md., rose from a seaside launch pad built by EER at NASA's Wallops Island test facility, at a cost of $4.5 million.
It carried a 2,000-pound satellite loaded with 14 scientific experiments.
The $20 million mission was on course, NASA said. But 47 seconds into the flight, one of four solid-fuel boosters appeared to malfunction.
EER Vice President Jim Hengle said an on-board computer sensed the problem and cut loose all six strap-on CASTOR 4B boosters, aborting the flight.
NASA safety officers then destroyed the four first-stage rockets to prevent them from flying toward populated areas.
The fragments fell into the Atlantic. There were no reports of any injuries or damage.
A grim-faced Mr. Hengle said his engineers "need to spend some time with the telemetry" before determining the cause of the failure. NASA and the federal Department of Transportation will join EER in investigating the failure.
In the meantime, NASA, the Air Force and private industry are still investigating a string of similar small-rocket failures.
* In June 1994, the first airplane-launched Pegasus XL rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp., of Sterling, Va., was destroyed off the California coast when it malfunctioned three minutes after launch.
* A second Pegasus XL was blown up 2 1/2 minutes after a launch in June 1995.
* On Aug. 15, 1995, the maiden flight of the Lockheed-Martin LLV (for Lockheed Launch Vehicle) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California also ended in a self-destruct order.
Of the new, small launchers, only a Taurus rocket launched in March by Orbital Sciences managed to reach orbit, Dr. Grey said.
A second Taurus launch attempt has encountered problems.
The push by private industry to develop a commercial launch capability began after the Challenger disaster in 1986.
NASA was ordered to stop using the shuttle for projects that did not require a manned spacecraft.
For a time, military and commercial satellites turned to Lockheed-Martin's Atlas rocket, and to the McDonnell-Douglas Delta. Both have been reliable, Dr. Grey said.
But both are costly rockets capable of hefting 4,000 to 20,000 pounds into orbit. A Delta launch can cost $40 million -- twice the cost of Taurus and more than three times the LLV.
The drive now at NASA and in the scientific community is to fly smaller and cheaper.
So, U.S. industry has been working since the 1980s to develop the Pegasus, Taurus, LLV and Conestoga to meet the demand.
Its chief future competitor now appears to be Russia, encouraged by easing of restrictions against U.S. payloads flying on Russian launchers, said Karen Poniatowski at NASA headquarters.
"And they have a lot of missiles they are eager to convert," Dr. Grey said. "The SS19 and the SS25 are both very good missiles that are now being sold as commercial launchers in Russia."
Ms. Poniatowski said the Russians are marketing their services "for prices below that of current U.S. offerings, with a demonstrated exceptional flight history."
Adding to the pressure on U.S. companies, the Federal Communications Commission last month accepted bids for access to new radio channels for cellular telephones. The response was huge, and the new systems would require hundreds of small, new relay satellites.
"There's been some criticism in past months that too many people were supplying launchers [for these smaller payloads]," Dr. Grey said. But now, "everybody believes there are not enough."
Some firms will cluster satellites on big rockets, because no small launch system is ready.
"The three most mature of the potential entrants into the small launch vehicle marketplace are all recuperating from failure," said NASA's Ms. Poniatowski, who is responsible for lining up launch services for nonmilitary federal payloads, which now face a "serious backup."
"There really is no cost-effective alternative," she said. The government must simply wait for the grounded rockets to "return to flight," perhaps in 1996.
In the meantime, NASA is completing a review of the recent failures and how well NASA and the industry are doing their jobs.
A NASA official familiar with the review said it has found that "some good practices" developed during the earlier history of the space program "may have been shortcutted" by industry.
That "has aided in the level of unreliability of the current series of launch failures."
NASA plans to meet next month with industry leaders to discuss the agency's concerns.