ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The cleanup of hazardous materials and metal shards continues at the state-owned Kodiak Launch Facility three months after military testers detonated a rocket carrying an experimental weapon, and the work might not be completed this year.
The team conducting the test Aug. 25 for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command noticed an anomaly within four seconds of the rocket lifting off in the early morning hours. The technician initiated the 48-foot rocket's self-destruct mechanism to guarantee public safety, the Space and Missile Defense Command said. The blast lit up the sky around Kodiak, damaged buildings at the launch facility and destroyed the rocket's payload: a glider designed to travel five times the speed of sound and strike anywhere on Earth within an hour of launch.
Instead of racing toward its target on Kwajalein Atoll, 3,900 miles southwest of Kodiak, the glider blew up an estimated 100 to 200 yards from the launch pad.
"It was a total loss," said John Cummings, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. "It was one of a kind. We made it for this test."
The glider did not carry any explosives, as an operational version might, but the explosion left behind some of the rocket's solid fuel. An ordnance disposal team from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson collected the leftover hazardous material, but some remained, as did metal shards from the rocket and the skin of damaged launch facility buildings, Cummings said.
Workers subcontracted by Miltec Corp., the company that conducted the test, have been working six days per week since October to clean up the site, according to a statement released Monday by the Space and Missile Defense Command. And while the goal is to finish that effort in December, winter weather might make that difficult, and "additional manpower" is being added, the statement says.
"Once the debris cleanup is complete, the next step will be to conduct an environmental investigation to determine if any residual contamination remains," the statement says.
That includes soil and water samples, according to the Space and Missile Defense Command. If needed, work to decontaminate the area will come later, in accordance with state and federal environmental laws, the statement says.
The Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which manages the site, has also hired security guards and installed a fence along nearby Pasagshak Road to keep people from wandering into the affected area, Cummings said.
"You don't need people picking stuff up or stepping on something," he said.
Cummings said the cause of the test failure is still under investigation.
Alaska Aerospace Corporation CEO Craig Campbell said insurance money will pay for the launch facility's rebuilding, which will include some updated components since the original buildings were 15 years old.
It remains unclear if any of the agencies involved in the test are responsible for the failure and whether the insurance company might seek payment from the military, Campbell said. The Space and Missile Defense Command is the facility's next scheduled customer — possibly for another test of the hypersonic glider — but there is no set date yet for a launch, Campbell said.
In the meantime, the corporation continues to seek additional customers for the site, Campbell said. Asked if the August test failure had made that more difficult, he said it had not.
"Those in the industry understand that things like this happen," Campbell said. "There has been, in our estimation, absolutely no chilling effect on our business development plan to get Kodiak a lot more active in future years."
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com