Nearly 200 people had gathered at two viewing sites, one a mile away, and 73 launch-team members were in a blockhouse next to the pad. When the $55m Delta II rocket exploded at 1,589ft, an Air Force officer said: "Take cover immediately from falling debris." A launch commentator, McDonnell Douglas Corp's Anne Toulouse, said: "We have had an anomaly; we must secure the area." Burning chunks of rocket plummeted into the ocean.
Police advised people to stay indoors with their windows closed for 90 minutes as a precaution against the cloud of smoke. But the Air Force said the cloud quickly drifted offshore and contained hardly any toxic fumes.
The rocket was carrying the first in a new generation of global positioning system satellites that can enable people to pinpoint time to within a millionth of a second, speed to a fraction of a mile per hour and location to within a few feet. Thirty-eight earlier models have been put into orbit.
Air Force officials said the loss of the vehicle would not hurt the network of satellites; it was intended as a replacement for an older spacecraft. McDonnell Douglas makes the Delta rocket, considered among the most reliable. Of 241 Delta launches since 1960, this was the 14th failure.
Jay Witzling, division director of the Delta programme for McDonnell Douglas, said: "It's rather sickening ... I know we'll recover and get back on line, but we've got to figure it out." The launch had originally been scheduled for Thursday, but was delayed until yesterday because of high winds.