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A Block IIR GPS satellite
Mission typeNavigation
OperatorUnited States Air Force
Mission duration10 years (planned)[1]
Failed to orbit
Spacecraft properties
SpacecraftGPS SVN-42
Spacecraft typeGPS Block IIR[1]
ManufacturerLockheed Martin[1]
Launch mass2,030 kilograms (4,480 lb)[1]
Start of mission
Launch date17 January 1997, 16:28:01 (1997-01-17UTC16:28:01Z) UTC
RocketDelta II 7925-9.5, D241
Launch siteCape Canaveral SLC-17A
ContractorBoeing IDS
Orbital parameters
Reference systemGeocentric
RegimeMedium Earth

GPS IIR-1 or GPS SVN-42 was the first Block IIR GPS satellite to be launched. It was to have been operated as part of the United States Air Force Global Positioning System. It was launched on January 17, 1997, and was destroyed 13 seconds into its flight due to a malfunction of the Delta II rocket that was carrying it.[2] It was estimated to have cost US$40 million, with its carrier rocket costing $55 million.[2] The satellite that was used for the IIR-1 mission was the second production IIR satellite, SVN-42.[3]


A Delta II solid rocket motor

GPS IIR-1 was launched on a Delta II 7925-9.5 rocket, serial number D241, from Launch Complex 17A at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The launch occurred at 16:28:01 GMT (11:28 local time), on January 17, 1997.[4] Thirteen seconds later, the rocket's flight termination system was activated by its onboard computer. This detonated explosive charges aboard the rocket, causing it to explode. At the time of explosion, the rocket was 1,600 feet (490 m) above the launch complex. It was the lowest-altitude launch failure at Cape Canaveral since Atlas-Centaur AC-5 in 1965 and only the third total loss of a Delta in the previous two decades.

An investigation determined that the failure was caused by a crack in the casing of the number 2 GEM-40 solid rocket motor, which started to form at T+6 seconds and grew from there.[5] At T+12 seconds, the SRB casing ruptured and debris struck the number 8 SRB next to it, causing that motor to fail as well.[6] One second later, the range safety destruct charges automatically activated, causing the rocket to auto-terminate, which led to the self-destruction of the first stage and the detonation of the remaining SRBs. The upper stages were blasted free. At T+21 seconds, the Range Safety Officer sent a manual destruct command to terminate the upper stages for safety purposes, resulting in their destruction. The GPS satellite and payload shroud survived intact until impacting the ground. It could not be determined with certainty what had tripped the destruct system on the first stage; possible explanations including a lanyard being pulled, a shock wave from the rupture of the number 2 SRB, or heat generated by the event.

The booster had been damaged by pressure from a support in a new transportation system that had recently been introduced.[5] Following the failure, the system was revised, and ultrasound inspections of boosters on future flights were introduced.[5]


Debris from the explosion fell into the Atlantic Ocean, and on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Some debris landed around the launch pad, and a small fire started. Other debris landed in the parking lot outside the complex blockhouse, destroying twenty cars that were located there. Two hundred and fifty tons of debris fell within 3,000 feet (910 m) of the launch pad. One piece of debris made a hole in a cable track, allowing smoke to enter the blockhouse.

Residents of the area around the launch site were advised to stay indoors, close windows, and turn off air conditioning systems as a precaution, as some vapours from the fuel could be irritant or toxic. The explosion was reported to have been felt 25 miles (40 km) away from the launch site, and damage to store windows 10 miles (16 km) away was reported.


A number of Delta II launches were delayed while the cause of the failure was investigated and corrective action was taken. It returned to service on 5 May 1997, making the first Delta II launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base SLC-2W. The launch was successful.[7]

With the retirement of the Delta II launch system, the GPS IIR-1 mission stands as the only outright failure of a Delta II rocket. The only partial failure of a Delta II was the launch of Koreasat 1, where one of the solid rocket motors failed to separate; the satellite still reached its correct orbit by using onboard propellant, which left it with a shorter than planned operational life expectancy.[8]

GPS IIR-1 was to have replaced an older satellite, which was still operational at the time of its replacement's launch. This satellite was able to continue operating until another replacement could be launched.[5]

The launch of GPS IIR-1 was the last to use the Complex 17 blockhouse, with future launches being controlled from a Launch Control Center in the 1st Space Launch Squadron Operations Building, 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) south of the pad.[9] This was already under construction at the time of the failure, as the blockhouse was unable to support the Delta III rocket, which was then under development. Following the failure, construction on the new control facilities was accelerated.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Krebs, Gunter. "GPS-2R (Navstar-2R)". Gunter's Space Page. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  2. ^ a b "Unmanned rocket explodes after liftoff". CNN. January 17, 1997. Retrieved June 21, 2009.
  3. ^ McDowell, Jonathan (1997-01-22). "Issue 311". Jonathan's Space Report. Retrieved 2009-06-21.
  4. ^ McDowell, Jonathan. "Launch Log". Jonathan's Space Page. Retrieved 2009-06-21.
  5. ^ a b c d Harland, David M; Lorenz, Ralph D. (2005). Space Systems Failures (2006 ed.). Chichester: Springer-Praxis. pp. 55–59. ISBN 0-387-21519-0.
  6. ^ "NAVSTAR GPS 2R-1 - Summary". Andrews Space & Technology. Archived from the original on 2009-02-26. Retrieved 2009-06-21.
  7. ^ "IRIDIUM". Decode Systems. Retrieved 2009-06-21.
  8. ^ "Koreasat 1". The Satellite Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2009-06-21.
  9. ^ "Space Launch Complex 17". Delta Launch Report. Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 2009-06-21.
  10. ^ Chien, Philip (1997-11-09). "Viewing Delta launches - was Iridium Launch & Flare from VAFB". Seesat-L. Retrieved 2009-06-21.