On March 4, the Boeing company, which is the lead contractor for the Pentagon’s ground-based midcourse missile defense program, selected Orbital Sciences Corporation to develop and test a booster rocket for possible use in the future system.
The booster is the part of the missile interceptor that carries the defense’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) into space, where the EKV seeks out an incoming target and tries to destroy it through a high-speed collision. In current intercept testing, the system employs a surrogate booster that accelerates much slower than the one expected to be used in a completed missile defense.
Boeing is developing its own booster for use in the missile defense system but has been plagued by development delays and a recent test failure. Scheduled to take place in February 2000, the first test of the booster did not occur until August 2001, roughly 18 months behind schedule. Although that test was viewed as a success, a second flight test of the booster failed less than 30 seconds after launch on December 13 of last year.
Boeing is continuing work on its own booster, which is tentatively scheduled for another flight test this summer, and an Orbital spokesman said that the first flight test of its booster is scheduled for sometime next year. It is uncertain when either booster may be incorporated into an actual intercept test, although one may be included after about five more intercept tries using the surrogate booster, according to a spokesman from the Missile Defense Agency, which manages U.S. missile defense efforts.
Orbital will receive approximately $400 million between 2002 and 2006 for initial research and development, with the possibility of an additional $535 million contract if its booster is approved for production and deployment. A March 4 Orbital press release noted that current plans call for a total of about 70 boosters to be built during the next seven years.