Written by Ernest McDermon
by Ernest McDermon
February 21, 2008
Right Side News
Yesterday the United States successfully destroyed a dead reconnaissance satellite that had lost power after insertion into orbit in 2006, and now was about to reenter Earth's atmosphere.
President Bush approved a Department of Defense operation designed to engage the satellite with a Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) which is designed to destroy inbound ballistic missiles in wartime.
At a briefing earlier this week conducted by Deputy National Security Advisor James Jeffrey, and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps General James Cartwright, it was explained that this satellite (weighing approximately 5000 pounds and about the size of a bus) contained a fuel tank full of Hydrazine propellant. If the satellite reentered the atmosphere, there was a slight possibility that the Hydrazine tank could reach the ground and release its contents, which would be hazardous to health with life threatening effects similar to deadly Chlorine gas.
NASA's Administrator Michael Griffin was also present at the briefing and he elaborated on the potential threat posed by the Hydrazine tank. "...from experience we learned with the Columbia disaster, one of the pieces that made it to the ground intact was the Hydrazine tank that the Columbia had on board for its Reaction Control System.
The tank on the Columbia was about the size and shape of the one on the satellite that is coming back in, about 40 inches in diameter, and the one in the Columbia accident actually leaked its Hydrazine fuel on the ground. The Columbia was at the end of its mission when it was destroyed...the amount of fuel remaining in the tank was small, and there were no casualties caused by it."
Administrator Griffin continue that "the tank on the satellite is basically full of Hydrazine, probably hundreds of pounds that is frozen solid now. If anything on the satellite can be expected to survive reentry, it will be this fuel tank and the Hydrazine fuel inside it."
General Casey reviewed the options available to the United States in this situation, and stated that theses were basically:
1) Do nothing and hope for the best. If we didn't take the shot at the satellite, it would reenter the atmosphere and hopefully land in the ocean. But the risk existed that if it landed in a populated area, which could basically be anywhere on the globe with this satellite. Worst case: people might die and the United States would be liable for the damages and casualties.
2) Try to shoot it down, but miss or graze the satellite with the missile. If we miss, we're right where we were with option 1, nothing has changed...the satellite is still coming down. If we graze it, we might cause it to reenter sooner, perhaps within a few orbits, and this would increase the likelihood that it would land in the ocean.
3) Destroy it with the missile. If the United States hit the satellite, we could puncture the Hydrazine fuel tank and destroy the hazard in space. Additionally this would break the 5000 pound satellite up into smaller pieces with less mass individually more drag, causing the bulk of the satellite to reenter the Earth's atmosphere within a few orbits, where they would burn up harmlessly.
The Defense Department, and NASA, believed that the course of action with the least "regret factor" would be to make the attempt to shoot it down, which President Bush accepted, and so ordered.
Worldwide, theories were circulated about the "real reason" for the shootdown. It was variously suggested that either the United States wanted to ensure that the spy satellite's highly classified surveillance systems didn't land where they would be revealed, or that this was actually a "test" of our Anti Ballistic Missile systems.
During the briefing, General Cartwright addressed the first concern when he answered that the United States has had spy satellites reenter in the past, and the sensitive systems on board never survive the heat of reentry, so this was not a consideration for the attempt. Generally the USA will conduct a controlled reentry of spy satellites using the propellant onboard and drop them harmlessly into the ocean. In this case, since the satellite was "dead" and had a full load of fuel on board, the difference was the tank full of Hydrazine.
Left unsaid, and really not even addressed by the reporters at the briefing, was whether or not this was being done as a "test". Clearly our Anti Ballistic Missile system is now operational since we have it deployed on at least three Aegis class Navy cruisers, and were able to conduct this operation on short notice successfully. It would appear that the need for testing of our missile shield is finished as far as military operational capability is concerned, a fact which has not gone unnoticed by China and Russia, who vigorously questioned this operation.
This shootdown is a dramatic demonstration of the United States' capabilities in terms of military systems, and leading edge technologies. To be able to shoot down a satellite travelling at about 15,000 mph and actually hit it head on with a missile travelling in the opposite direction at around 7,000 mph, is an amazing achievement, and our heartfelt thanks should be offered to the scientists, engineers and members of our Armed Forces who have made this possible.
Regardless of your political persuasion, all Americans can take pride in this and be grateful that we have developed this capability, which in this case, may have saved lives on the ground, and prevented a potential black eye for America's reputation world wide. Had the shot failed, the headlines this morning would bemoan the expenditure of "billions of dollars for a failed defensive program." If the satellite's fuel tank made it to the ground, and people died because of it, we would be accused worldwide of "heartlessly not wanting to spend money on a single missile to save innocent lives."
But since we're talking about "theories" as to the "real" reason for the shootdown, let me propose mine: Caribou.
This spy satellite was circling the Earth in a polar orbit which brings it over every inch of the globe at least once or twice per day. As a matter of course, it would have travelled over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and could possibly have reentered the atmosphere and landed among the Caribou herds guarding the oil located there.
If the fuel tank containing the deadly Hydrazine landed among the Caribou, the resulting deaths could have caused the collapse of the Caribou in the Refuge, and removed a major impediment to drilling for oil.
No Caribou, no reason not to drill in ANWR.
Alarmed at the prospect of the sudden possibility that the United States might actually be able to drill for oil in ANWR, environmentalists and animal rights activists immediately realized the need to shoot down the satellite for reasons undisclosed previously: not to prevent the possible loss of human life on the ground in an unfortunate accident, but to prevent the loss of animal life.
Quietly they approached the United States government offering their covert approval for the sensitive operation, so as not to be seen as advocating support for the United States Armed Forces or our commercial and technological capabilities.
Assured that organizations such as Greenpeace wouldn't send ships to the launch area to interfere with the shootdown attempt by the Navy, and that protests by environmentalists wouldn't be mounted at the gates of the Pentagon, our military was able to conduct a brilliantly successful operation on short notice. This also had the public relations benefit that it would end a potential hazard to Caribou in Alaska, and forestall the possibility that greedy oil companies would begin drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
That's my theory, what's yours?
Ernest McDermon is a Vietnam Veteran and former Army Officer with many years service. Ernie resides in the Atlanta area and owns a website design and search marketing company in the Atlanta area. A Right Side News contributor, he comments on politics, foreign affairs and the military.