CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The Pershing II, the Army's controversial missile designed to carry nuclear warheads, blasted off on a successful third test flight today from the Eastern Space and Missile Center.
The missile, beset with problems and delays during its first two shakedown flights, lifted off at 9:48 EST -- 12 minutes ahead of schedule. The Pershing II was scheduled to be launched Thursday, but was delayed a day because of a ground computer problem and stormy weather.
The missile thundered into the blue Florida sky like a brilliant comet, leaving puffy white contrails in its wake. As the Pershing II made an arch in its flight plan, observers on the ground could see the first stage make its fiery burnout and the second stage ignite.
Dave Harris, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Command at Huntsville, Ala., said the Pershing's third flight was to take the missile 196 miles high and 823 down range. The results of the test were not immediately known.
'The main purpose of today's test is to check the missile's structure and propulsion systems under long range conditions and see how it manuevers,' Harris said.
'What we saw here today indicates a good powered flight and the operation of the two motors proved normal. Everything we know indicates a normal flight. We won't know how the missile went for three or four days.'
Harris said 10 Pershing II missiles would be tested at the Eastern Space and Missile Center at Cape Canaveraland six would be tested at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The first test flight of the 35-foot Pershing II ended in a fiery explosion last July at Cape Canaveral just 17 seconds after takeoff. Army officials said the explosion was caused by an internal leak.
The second launch, from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, was termed a partial success. The flight went as planned, but a hydraulic malfunction caused the rocket to miss its mark on re-entry.
The Pentagon has ordered 108 Pershing II missiles tipped with nuclear warheads to replace an equal fleet of Pershing I missiles in West Germany. Plans call for the new missiles to be deployed to West Germany next December.
The Pershing II has twice the range and is far more accurate than the Pershing I. The Pershing II can carry a warhead 800 miles and is designed to hit within 120 feet of its target.
Soviet officials are opposed to the Pershing II missiles, since the rockets can reach inside Soviet territory.
The Pershing II has been criticized by anti-nuclear groups in Western Europe, who claim deployment of the new Pershing missile and the Cruise Missile will make their countries targets of Soviet missiles.