It's been a long, long time since I worked on missiles. Not rockets, but missiles. Guided cruise missiles that each carried over 2 million tons of TNT to someplace we didn't want to exist once a shooting war started. I have seen rocket-powered ballistic missiles, but the missiles I worked on were far less dramatic, too boring for most U.S. media coverage.
It was with great interest that I watched the American media do its best to scare the living daylights out of the public with its amateurish and shallow reporting about the North Korean ballistic missile test in April, 2012. Gone are the days when actual experts described what could be seen, replaced by news readers intent on whatever script is handed them.
When shown for the first time on television, I was surprised at the small size of the primary lift section, the first stage of the missile. I had already learned from a serious, concerned reporter from a cable news network I honestly hadn't identified, that the missile was a liquid-fueled missile. That would make the diameter of the first stage too small too lift any serious, space station type payloads. The size might be comparable to the latest Minuteman or Poseidon first stages which are both solid-fueled. Solid fueled rockets don't have to be fueled before use: they already are! That makes the North Korean missile a generational throwback if it is to be used as a weapon.
Next, the payload was supposedly a primitive rectangular satellite vaguely reminiscent of the square space ship used by the Borg in the television series, “Star Trek, The Next Generation.” I leaned forward in my chair. This was getting interesting, but not for the reasons being blathered by the talkathon coming from the newscast.
As I replayed the recording over and over again, I thought to myself, “DoD must be laughing its ass off.” This thing is not much bigger than a Thor, an IRBM we retired some 40 years ago. The payload section, a reentry vehicle which contains the warhead in a weapon, or the satellite if the unit is to go into orbit, appeared to be far too small to house the rectangular satellite displayed as the payload by the North Koreans. Who is kidding whom here? And why? I dismissed the missile as a disaster waiting to happen, or at best, a really expensive propaganda exercise to bolster their massive egos. At best, the program is akin to American ballistic missile progress in the late 50s or early 60s.
Several days later I was fortunate enough to catch Richard Engels of NBC reporting from North Korea. He, or someone on his news team, had been allowed access to the launch center control room and had taken videos of the supposed nerve center. Big mistake for the North Koreans. Perhaps they were impressed with oscilloscope displays of analog signals, probably the North Korean Military band playing patriotic marches, but I simply stared at three large-screen displays showing absolute nonsense in utter amazement. The control room was barren by anyone who has launched a missile's standards. Sixteen technicians, or actors pretending to be technicians, sat in pairs at consoles arranged in two rows like a school room. A single, large screen display dominated the center of the room. It looked exactly like a set from an old James Bond movie. My first impression was that the real control room was located somewhere else, probably China. I could hardly wait to see the launch, if it ever proceeded that far.
So, on April 12th, it was with mild amusement I listened to frowning, serious American newscasters explain the North Korean missile lifted off but destroyed itself less than 90 seconds into its flight. I'm surprised it got that far. Perhaps the band quit playing and the displays in the control room went blank.
The question isn't why it failed, but rather why they bothered in the first place.