Orbital Wins Competition for Initial Missile Defense Deployment Booster by Default

Wade Boese

Two recent accidents at a California missile propellant facility have delayed production and testing of a Lockheed Martin Corporation booster being considered for inclusion in the Bush administration’s proposed defense system against long-range ballistic missiles. As a result, the Pentagon announced Nov. 7 that it would rely on a second model, developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation, to power the system’s first 10 missile interceptors.

The booster is one of two key components for the ground-based interceptors in the missile defense system, slated for deployment next fall. The other is the exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV). The booster lifts the EKV into space, where it is supposed to home in on and collide with an enemy warhead.

Six of the Orbital Sciences boosters are now set for deployment in Alaska, and four will be based in California. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) conducted its first successful flight test of the Orbital Sciences booster Aug. 16. Orbital Sciences conducted a test of a pared-down version last February. Neither test involved an EKV or a target warhead.

Lockheed’s effort was put on hold by two explosions at a Pratt & Whitney plant preparing the solid fuel for its boosters. The accidents, which occurred Aug. 7 and Sept. 12, killed one employee, destroyed one of the containers in which the propellant is mixed, and resulted in the mixing operation being suspended for a major safety evaluation.

Without its specific propellant, the Lockheed booster cannot fly. Although Pratt & Whitney is set to resume production of the propellant in April 2004, this will not occur in time for Lockheed to meet the Pentagon’s current initial deployment schedule.

However, Lockheed does possess a couple of completed booster motors, and MDA has scheduled a flight test of the Lockheed booster for the first half of December. The test, which will not involve an EKV or a target, has been postponed several times.

Lockheed’s booster could be the primary model for a second round of 10 interceptors planned for deployment during 2005. MDA spokesman Rick Lehner said Nov. 17 that MDA will look to “stay with two boosters for a long time.”

The Pentagon’s effort to develop a booster for its ground-based interceptor has been significantly troubled. Early plans called for a prototype booster first to be involved in an intercept test in early 2001. That has yet to happen.

In lieu of a prototype booster, the Pentagon has used a slower, surrogate booster in all eight of its strategic missile defense intercept tests. Two of the system’s three test failures could be traced to the surrogate booster, prompting MDA to suspend intercept testing after a December 2002 failure until at least one of the two prototypes was available. Two intercept tests, using the Orbital Sciences booster, are tentatively scheduled for next year.