NASA is studying whether to modify its shuttle destruct system so it would automatically blow up an orbiter's boosters after a catastrophic failure to minimize the threat to life and property on the ground, officials say.
The system, called an "inadvertent separation destruct system," currently is used with unmanned Air Force Titan 34D rockets like one thought to be scheduled for blastoff this weekend from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.Air Force Col. Lawrence Gooch, commander of the eastern missile center, told the Cape Canaveral Press Club late Thursday that "NASA is looking at . . . putting an inadvertent separation destruct system on the shuttle."
"Now that hasn't been a popular thing and we don't have very many crew members campaigning to put that on there," he said, adding that if NASA proceeds with such a plan, "obviously, that's going to have to be very well-designed and fault tolerant."
NASA officials had no comment, other than to say it would take several years to implement such a system, even if it was approved.
Titan rockets, like NASA's manned space shuttles, are equipped with two strap-on solid-fuel boosters that are jettisoned about 2 minutes after blastoff when their fuel is exhausted.
Both shuttle boosters and those used by Titan rockets are wired with explosives to destroy an out-of-control rocket in the event of a major failure and to minimize the threat to life and property on the ground.
But unlike the shuttle, Titans are rigged with a system that will automatically set off explosives in both boosters, triggering the rockets' destruction, if a vehicle starts to break up in flight for other reasons.
The system was used April 18, 1986, when a Titan 34D launched from Vandenberg blew up about 8 seconds after launch when one of its boosters suffered a catastrophic "burn through."
Shuttle boosters also are wired with explosives - about 70 pounds of a material known as HMX - but detonation requires radio commands from an Air Force range safety officer on the ground.
Gooch said it would take a minimum of 10 seconds or so to radio such commands to an out-of-control shuttle.