Within minutes, the interceptor's three boosters had burned out and fallen away, and the kill vehicle was hurtling through space at 4 miles per second. It was supposed to crash into the mock enemy warhead and obliterate it.
At a cost of about $200 million, the mission had failed.
Eleven months later, when the U.S. Missile Defense Agency staged a repeat of the test, it failed, too.
The next attempted intercept, launched from Vandenberg on July 5, 2013, also ended in failure.
The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, was supposed to protect Americans against a chilling new threat from "rogue states" such as North Korea and Iran. But a decade after it was declared operational, and after $40 billion in spending, the missile shield cannot be relied on, even in carefully scripted tests that are much less challenging than an actual attack would be, a Los Angeles Times investigation has found.
The Missile Defense Agency has conducted 16 tests of the system's ability to intercept a mock enemy warhead. It has failed in eight of them, government records show.
Despite years of tinkering and vows to fix technical shortcomings, the system's performance has gotten worse, not better, since testing began in 1999. Of the eight tests held since GMD became operational in 2004, five have been failures. The last successful intercept was on Dec. 5, 2008. Another test is planned at Vandenberg, on the Santa Barbara County coast, later this month.