Pentagon Tests Missile Defense Booster

On August 31, the Pentagon conducted the first flight test of the booster to be used in the proposed U.S. ground-based missile defense system. Boeing, the lead private contractor for the defense system, declared the long-delayed flight a success.

According to Boeing and the Pentagon’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), which oversees U.S. missile defense programs, the booster was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California; its three stages separated properly; and it splashed down west of Hawaii after reaching a maximum altitude just shy of 500 kilometers. The booster test was originally supposed to take place in February 2000, but the schedule slipped repeatedly because of delays in development.

The test did not involve an intercept attempt, and the booster did not carry an exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV), which is the element of the proposed missile defense system that actually seeks out and collides with a target in outer space. In the four intercept tests of the defense system to date, the Pentagon has used a surrogate booster less powerful than the one tested August 31 to lift the EKV into space.

In this latest test, the booster carried a mass representative of an EKV, and sensors measured the stresses put on the mass by the booster’s acceleration. High-profile reviews of the Pentagon’s missile defense program during the Clinton administration questioned whether the EKV would be capable of withstanding the severe vibrations caused by the booster’s acceleration, which is significantly greater than that of the surrogate booster. A BMDO spokesperson said the data collected by the sensors showed the stresses were “well within the tolerances that the kill vehicle could stand up to.”

BMDO and Boeing reported the test had an “anomaly” involving the booster’s vehicle roll control, which helps stabilize the missile in flight. But the booster stayed on course despite the problem, a second BMDO spokesperson said.

The Pentagon is planning another booster flight test this December and may try to mate the booster with an EKV for an intercept attempt as soon as late 2002. The next intercept test employing the surrogate booster is tentatively scheduled for this November. Pentagon officials previously had said that the test would be in this October.