A powerful Titan rocket Wednesday propelled into space a secret Pentagon payload believed to be a pair of advanced satellites for worldwide U.S. military and diplomatic communications.
The 16-story-tall, $65-million Titan 34D roared away from its launch pad and appeared to be flying normally as it rumbled out over the Atlantic through partly cloudy skies.
The fiery exhaust ignited several brush fires that kept the launch pad area closed for more than an hour. There was no damage to facilities, officials said.
The Air Force did not announce the launch in advance, which has been its practice on military space flights for several years. It issued a brief post-launch statement that said only that a Titan 34D had been "launched successfully." It provided no information on the nature of the payload.
Although the Pentagon tried to keep the launch secret, with more than 20,000 employees working at Cape Canaveral and the adjacent Kennedy Space Center, it proved difficult for them to hide the fact that a rocket that large was going to be launched.
Minutes before the Titan 34D lifted off, hundreds of workers poured out of buildings to watch.
Lt. Gen. Aloysius Casey, outgoing commander of the Air Force Space Division, told a space conference last year that the first Titan 34D launched in 1989 would carry up two communications satellites named DSCS, for Defense Satellite Communications System.
Sources close to the project who declined to be identified said Wednesday the DSCS satellites were aboard the Titan 34D. DSCS satellites are built to provide secure voice and high data-rate transmission for American military and diplomatic communications.