Video: North Korea rocket launch fails

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    MADDOW: international news from North Korea , which tried to launch a long- range rocket just a couple of hours ago at about 7:39 a.m . local time , Friday morning, tomorrow morning in North Korea . The news is so recent that we do not yet have video of the launch and we, frankly, don't know if we'll ever get it. The footage shows the three- stage rocket being prepared for launch this week. North Korea said this rocket , this Unha-3 , was designed to carry a satellite into space, a communication satellite . They said it was for the good of the national economy. That's what they said. The launch , however, was the object of major international and, in particular, American consternation, because although no one particularly cares about whether or not North Korea has communication satellites , there are a lot of countries that care about whether or not North Korea has a long- range intercontinental missile that could theoretically be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to, say, us. North Korea 's military dictatorship denied any military purpose whatsoever for this rocket . But that was met internationally with something like skepticism but far more intense. Now, though, the major news here -- now that there has been a launch , it's technical. The major news here is that the launch appears to have failed. Instead of the rocket going up in three stages with each one burning off in turn and propelling the rocket upward eventually into orbit, which is how a three- stage rocket in this case is supposed to work, this one just launched in North Korea appears to have broken apart very soon after takeoff. A U.S. officially telling NBC News that the rocket fell harmlessly into the sea very shortly after liftoff. Now, North Korea has made other attempts at launching rockets. It tried in 2006 . It tried again in 2009 . The 2009 one crashed into the sea off the coast of Japan . Because of North Korea 's absolutely intransigent rejection of international norms and international pressure, the world at large has seemed to have very little means of getting North Korea to go along with international norms. Particularly it set very little means of pressuring North Korea to give up on the nuclear weapons program. But just a few weeks ago, the U.S. reached an agreement with North Korea . Well, not explicitly tying food aid to the country to military issues, the agreement pretty much did just tie food aid to military issues. The U.S. said that we will give North Korea the food aid that it desperately needs since so much of the country's resources go into its military . We will help feed the North Korean people if the North Korean government will agree to not test any more missiles. Before the launch today, the White House press secretary told reporters that if North Korea had -- were to go ahead with this missile launch , that would constitute a significant and clear demonstration of bad faith and would leave the U.S. unable to move forward with that program -- meaning that food aid program. He said it would make going ahead with that program, quote, "virtually impossible". Also today, before the launch , the U.S. secretary of state met with the other nations in the G-8 -- France , Germany , the U.K. , Japan , Canada , Italy , and Russia . Secretary Clinton emerged from that meeting with this message for North Korea 's government .

    HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: If Pyongyang goes forward, we will all be back in the secretary council to take further action.

    MADDOW: But again, tonight, the breaking news, the nation of North Korea , just hours ago, attempted to launch a lock- range rocket against the demands of the United States and many American allies. U.S. officials tell NBC News that the launch failed. The rocket , which was said to be carrying a communications satellite , did not reach orbit. It crashed into the sea. And now for the rest of the world , the question that changes every time there's a development like this but never goes away, the question of how to deal with the strange and confounding nation of Korea remains. Joining us live from Pyongyang in North Korea is now Richard Engel , NBC News chief foreign correspondent. Richard , thank you so much for being with us. From Pyongyang , how did you learn the news that the rocket launch had happened?

    RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: We certainly didn't hear it from North Korean officials. North Korea has brought in about 100 reporters and we were expecting to have a press conference. There was some anticipation that we would even see this go up live or with a slight delay on video screens. But instead we were told by officials in Washington , we were alerted by our own news desk, there are reports coming out of Japan and South Korea that not only had the rocket gone up, but that it had failed. And one of the moments I'll remember today, as we rushed into the press center, the only place that has Internet , the only place that has computer access, and we saw our minder, our link to the government here and the minder said, OK, are you ready? We're going to go in a few hours to a music festival . We said, what, what music festival ? What are you talking about? There has just been a rocket launch . We were met with a completely blank stare and then he shrugged his shoulders and ran out of the room. Just a short while ago, there was an empty desk where officials were supposed to give us a briefing about what happened and we've just been told in a few hours, we're going to be taken by -- to some sort of military facility, perhaps to learn more information or to learn North Korea 's version of events. Rachel , I have a surprise for you. I have a scale model of the rocket which I keep with me at all times. And it shows the three- stage rocket that you were describing. This is the first stage , liquid fuel . Second stage , also liquid fuel . The third stage , not exactly sure, either liquid or solid. And it appears that the rocket exploded, crashed, failed sometime as the first stage was burning off and right around the time of separation. Because the way these work is first stage propels the rocket up and then it's supposed to break into two. The first stage drops into the ground, drops into the sea, in this case, and then the second stage continues. And we are told that somewhere between a minute and two minutes that this rocket failed, which would have been right around the time of the end of the first stage . This is an enormous embarrassment for North Korea and what is critical to see now is how the North Korean government is going to explain this to the world and explain it to its own people.

    MADDOW: Richard , given what you have been told about what the missile launch was nor in North Korea , the fact that you are there at all, that they are letting you see things, that they are trying to show this off to you in some way or other --

    ENGEL: I no longer have audio.

    MADDOW: Oh. I can hear Richard but he can't hear me. Richard , still can't hear me? All right. We have lost our connection with Richard Engel in Pyongyang -- talking to anyone in Pyongyang is an amazing thing in any case. It is notable that Richard is there. As he was mentioning, he's there part of essentially an international delegation of press into this closed military dictatorship of a country. The reason they did that and this even got a sort of rebuke from the White House this week was that the North Korean government was interested in showing off that they were doing this rocket launch , of course, denying any military purpose for this rocket whatsoever. Potential military use for this rocket is the thing that brought about so much international condemnation of their plans to do this. Now that it has failed, it is going to be very interesting to see how North Korea goes about explaining both the technical failure. Usually when they have a technical failure, they come up with some ornate blame system for coming up -- for expunging any responsibility for themselves for the technical failure. The fact that there are a lot of international journalists still in that country where they are coming up with some sort of an explanation for what's happened is itself a huge part of the political impact here. Joining

By NBC News space analyst
Special to NBC News
updated 4/12/2012 7:56:34 PM ET 2012-04-12T23:56:34

The long-awaited launch of North Korea's Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite has finally happened — and apparently has ended in failure. Now what?

Even before Friday's liftoff, failure seemed like the most likely option. The things that I saw this week during our amazing insider tour of the North Korean space program made me even more doubtful that the Earth-observing satellite would be successfully placed in orbit.

The fallout from a mission failure could follow any of several possible scenarios. A lot depends on the circumstances surrounding the failure.

One of the most straightforward scenarios would involve an explosion just after liftoff from North Korea's new Sohae launch base . This may not be as easily detectable as it sounds, especially since the video transmission from the launch site has been tape-delayed. In that case, "no news" is all the news there will be, until a later announcement that the launch was "indefinitely postponed."

NBC's space expert answers your questions

Local residents north of the base — and we saw lots of villages there — would notice the explosion, but might not even connect it with a rocket. And rumors would be unlikely to spread very fast in such a tightly controlled society.

After a minute or so of flight, the rocket will be high in the skies over the western half of the country, including the capital, Pyongyang. Any "energetic event" (NASA’s favorite euphemism for a bad-ass explosion) would streak the sky with a burst of flame — but no sound.

Lots of people would see it, and some foreign visitors might even get a picture. But these photographs and videos would be recognized for what they showed only if the launch was announced within a minute of liftoff.

Another opportunity for failure could have come after a well-publicized liftoff, after the vehicle vanished over the southern horizon. The critical third-stage burn, which apparently involves a fairly sophisticated sideways jog to slip into the proper final orbit, would be too far away for in-country tracking sites to receive signals.

The wait for confirmation would be excruciating, because the satellite’s orbit is not projected to pass within radio range of North Korea for 11 hours. This is a real situation — I’ve checked the orbital flight path myself — and it’s caused by the steep polar orbit of the vehicle.

'Space is hard'
Failures in space often occur because, basically, "space is hard." And it’s especially hard on beginners. Failure rates in almost every national program start out high, and then diminish.

But people can also make spaceflight harder than it has to be through careless and imprudent attitudes. These can interfere with the crucial process of error detection, diagnosis and correction, that must occur effectively many times a day in the run-up to a space shot.

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If people are pressured into cutting corners and taking shortcuts to meet an unrealistic schedule, critical choices may be overlooked, crucial repairs may be omitted. Lamentable examples from the past are too numerous and well-known to merit mentioning.

The schedule pressure on this North Korean mission, tied to the most important holiday in their country’s history, must have been immense. It’s a formula for fatal errors, all too familiar to space experts.

The North Korean situation was made worse by the "launch fever" attitude exemplified by mission managers in front of visiting Western journalists. With quasi-religious fervor and dedication to an ideology they treat as near-divine, their ability to tolerate dissent or doubts from working troops must have been very, very low. When in doubt, it seems, they quote favorite passages from their leaders’ writings, and charge ahead.

This is more than worrisome: It seems to be a recipe for disaster. Every worker must have the courage to speak up and recommend remedial measures. Whether they can overcome this culture in a technological field that is notoriously intolerant of make-believe is the most serious issue I found on my visit.

Mythical reasons
There are a wide variety of excuses available to all observers to "explain away" a failure. And since rocket scientists know that the first step towards one’s next disaster is to forget about — or deny — the previous disaster, the North Korean insistence against all evidence that their first two satellites were actually successful, is not auspicious.

The first and most traditional reaction from Pyongyang to a satellite failure would be simply to pretend it succeeded. That worked for them in 1998 and 2009, but this time there is too much scrutiny from visitors and worldwide radio amateurs to make such a pretense attractive.

The next choice, however, is worse: Blame foreign enemies. If the failure occurred early in flight, the South Koreans can be implicated. If it occurred farther away, out of radio contact, U.S. malevolence is an obvious scapegoat. This is an instinct that we even saw in some supposedly sensible Russian space experts when their recent Mars probe tripped on its face just out of the starting gate. U.S. radar interference was widely suggested as the cause, a gimmick that North Korea could be expected to copy for its own needs.

Alternately, Pyongyang could blame internal enemies intent on sabotage, an old Stalin-era trick. It could help fuel a major purge of less-than-perfectly-loyal officials during the ongoing regime transition. Hundreds could be fired, and many shot — a convenient excuse for a housecleaning.

Russia came up with a less malicious blame-shifting gambit recently when they officially explained the crash of the Mars-bound Phobos-Grunt probe on what today passes for an "act of God" — space radiation. Supposedly, two computer chips were zapped by cosmic forces beyond the control of mere earthlings. If the North Koreans are feeling unusually benign, they could opt for this excuse, and reduce the need for much bloodletting.

Western conspiracy theory
No catalog of conspiracy theories would be complete without a version that might spring up in the West — that the failure was all part of a preordained plan to hide a top-secret weapons test. Like all good conspiracy theories, it originates from a web of actual facts, but then lets the imagination guide the conclusions.

Here’s one version: the "satellite" was never on board, but had been surreptitiously replaced by the one major missile weapon component not yet verified, a heat-shielded re-entry capsule. Until this technology is acquired, the ability to throw a warhead thousands of miles is useless, because the descending warhead would burn up as soon as it hits the atmosphere.

So to close this gap, put a test warhead under the nose cone. Launch it as a "satellite." Let the warhead drop back into the atmosphere along with the spent second stage, where it can radio simple test results to a small ship or submarine. Physical recovery wouldn’t be necessary to confirm that the design worked.

All these excuses have the virtue of being simple and easy to understand. Their only drawback, aside from the aggravation of already-too-high tensions in the area, is that they would be wrong — and worse than useless in preparing for a new launch attempt.

More about the North Korea and its rocket program:

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of several books on space history and space policy, including "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance."

Oberg's initial report from Pyongyang was filed prior to launch, and updated to reflect reports after the launch.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  5. Accidental art

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  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  12. Frosty halo

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    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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