Nasa Misfire Comes To Light

Posted: May 10, 1986

WASHINGTON — A NASA research rocket that had flown successfully 120 consecutive times misfired over the New Mexico desert two weeks ago - the fourth U.S. space launch vehicle to fail this year.

The government, whose space program is under pressure because of the recent explosions of the much larger Titan and Delta rockets and the space shuttle, did not announce the April 25 failure of a Nike Orion rocket carrying a pollution-sampling device.

The accident came to light yesterday as NASA, apparently bowing to a demand by the presidential Challenger commission, announced that it is asking independent experts to oversee the redesign of the solid booster rocket joint that is thought to have caused the space shuttle to explode Jan. 28.

The Nike rocket that failed two weeks ago dates back to the early 1950s when it was developed as a surface-to-air missile against aircraft. The latest version of the rocket was retired from military service in Europe in 1985.

NASA has been using the solid-fuel Nike booster with another solid-fuel surplus military rocket, the Orion, for various experiments, including the pollution testing payload that went aloft April 25.

The rocket had climbed 1.6 miles above the U.S. Army Missile Range in White Sands, N.M., when the first stage Nike failed to separate before the second stage Orion ignited, said NASA spokesman James Kukowski.

When that happened, the rocket veered erratically and "the payload was knocked off," Kukowski said in Washington.

A parachute brought the $40,000 experiment back to Earth with no major damage while rocket debris fell over the desolate missile range.

Kukowski said NASA did not announce the accident because the launch was routine.

"We don't even pay any attention to sounding rockets," he said. "It's been going on for years and years."

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