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Rocket carries military satellite into space

An Atlas rocket hurtled into space Monday with a military communications satellite intended to link the White House with U.S. forces around the world during nuclear attacks or other crises.

In peacetime, the $130-million satellite will serve as a switchboard for Defense Department personnel.

"When we've got commanders overseas dealing with military subjects, we need a secure way to talk about it," Air Force Col. Stephen Purdy, satellite program director, said before the launch. "You just can't pick up the phone and talk via AT&T."

The 15-story, unmanned rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:41 p.m. It vaulted over the Atlantic Ocean, leaving a trail of smoke in the hazy sky.

Liftoff was delayed more than an hour because of last-minute trouble with ground-support equipment and an on-board heater for the satellite. The launch had been canceled three times in the past 1{ weeks, twice because of problems with the $54-million rocket and once because of high winds.

Air Force officials said everything appeared to go well with Monday evening's launch. The satellite was supposed to separate from the booster a half-hour after liftoff. An attached motor will raise the satellite to a stationary orbit 22,300 miles above the equator in the coming week.

The Defense Satellite Communications System will join eight other such craft circling Earth. Two of them were dispatched by astronauts aboard the shuttle Atlantis in 1985.

The satellites provided more than 75 percent of all military communications in and out of the Middle East during the Persian Gulf war last year, Purdy said.

The satellites also were used by American soldiers calling home from Saudi Arabia.

The 2,550-pound DSCS-3 satellites _ the latest model _ are jam-proof and shielded with special materials to withstand nuclear attack, allowing military leaders to communicate during warfare. The electromagnetic effects of nuclear explosions could short out or overload unshielded electronic components.

The newest satellite becomes operational after a two-month checkout and will replace an older craft, Purdy said. General Electric Co. designed the DSCS-3 to last 10 years.

The Air Force plans to send up nine more DSCS-3 satellites, all on General Dynamics Corp.'s Atlas 2 rockets, to replenish the aging defense communications system. The $1.86-billion DSCS-3 program provides for 14 satellites; the one sent up Monday was No. 5.

Monday's launch was the first of an Air Force Atlas 2. The Defense Department switched virtually all of its satellites from NASA's shuttles to unmanned rockets following the 1986 Challenger explosion.

The launch initially was to be conducted in secrecy. But 2{ weeks ago, Air Force officials waived the security classification policy for the mission because of "expected high interest" in the new launch system, said Maj. Dave Thurston.