Thursday, February 21, 2008; 12:16 PM
President Bush now has something else to add to his legacy: A significant milestone in the militarization of space.
Josh White and Marc Kaufman write for The Washington Post this morning: "Military officials have a 'high degree of confidence' that they were able to hit and destroy the tank of potentially dangerous fuel aboard a wayward spy satellite orbiting Earth last night, but they said they must still monitor the debris to be certain it does not pose further risk of reentering the atmosphere in coming days."
But consider this: "Before last night's intercept, some experts had expressed doubts about the seriousness of the risk posed by the falling satellite and questioned whether the shot was an excuse to perform an anti-satellite test that many people around the world found controversial," White and Kaufman write.
"Scientists, arms-control advocates and others said the shoot-down was based on questionable modeling by the government of the risks to human health and was a danger to the future peaceful use of space. . . .
"Some worried that the U.S. decision to adapt a rocket designed for missile defense to serve as an anti-satellite weapon would encourage other nations to experiment with their own anti-satellite technology. . . .
"Though [Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,] and other defense officials said the effort was not a test of the nation's missile defense system, nor a show of force to other countries that the U.S. can take down a satellite, the operation makes it clear that the missile defense system can be modified very quickly to accomplish such a task."
John Barry writes for Newsweek that the satellite, "USA 193, weighing around 5,000 pounds, is the size of a school bus. But . . . [t]hree-quarters of the earth's surface is water. Ninety-five percent is uninhabited. Suppose USA 193's debris were to cover a few square miles, which is a plausible estimate. The earth's surface is 197 million square miles -- all but one-20th of which is uninhabited. . . .
"The detailed rationale given by administration officials for the shoot-down makes little more sense. USA 193 carries on board a tank of hydrazine, the fuel U.S. satellites use to change orbit in space. . . . Hydrazine is moderately toxic, with effects akin to chlorine gas. The hydrazine cloud from USA 193's tank would, if released, diffuse over an area of roughly two football fields. The cloud would dissipate in minutes. Nevertheless, we are told, that is the risk that impelled President Bush to order the satellite's midair destruction."
Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe that Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, yesterday "stressed that the United States has gone out of its way to assuage any concerns of foreign nations that the mission was also being used to test the military's ability to destroy the satellites of other countries."
Nevertheless, "China and Russia have both expressed concerns that the launch was meant to test a new antisatellite weapon."
Bruce W. MacDonald and Charles D. Ferguson write in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that "the administration put at risk multiple U.S. security interests -- a high price to pay to offset that highly unlikely danger.
"The administration has insisted that it was not trying to test the anti-satellite capabilities of the Navy's Aegis missile defense system, but that was exactly the result. The action was similar to China's unwise anti-satellite test in January 2007: An interceptor missile was launched, releasing a warhead meant to destroy the target satellite. . . .
"Washington should not be surprised when Beijing exploits this launch to justify its own burgeoning anti-satellite program. The U.S. action will give China, Russia and others an excuse to develop and test comparable capabilities, claiming that they too need to keep their populations safe from falling satellites. China may well feel freed from the pledge it made last year not to test its anti-satellite weapons again."
The USA Today editorial board writes that the destruction of the satellite "might be just what the White House says it is: a well-intentioned effort to destroy a school bus-sized contraption carrying toxic fuel before it can threaten lives on the ground.
"But because the administration seemed willing as recently as last month to let the satellite plummet to Earth unmolested -- figuring that much of it would be burned up in a fiery re-entry and the rest would have little chance of hitting anyone on the planet's vast expanse -- it's not surprising that the shoot-down plan is generating suspicion. Critics such as Russia's Defense Ministry say the real motive is to test U.S. space weapons capability."
The destruction of the satellite also creates great PR for Bush's otherwise largely unsuccesful and hugely expensive missile defense program.
Ivan Oelrich, vice president for strategic programs at the Federation of American Scientists, was Live Online on washingtonpost.com yesterday. "I can't read minds so I don't know motivations but I suspect that one motivation is that this is a great political boost to the missile defense system," he wrote. "People don't make much distinction between missile defense and anti-satellite intercepts. So here is this 'grave' danger from space, we fire a rocket at it and, poof, the danger is gone. Aren't you glad we spent the billions of dollars on that missile defense system? . . .
"I believe that a reasonably skeptical person can be forgiven that there is more going on here than the administration claims."
As for the risks, Oelrich wrote: "To put this in some perspective, the US produces 36,000,000 pounds of hydrazine every year. The world 130,000,000 pounds. This is transported around the country in trucks and on trains. At any given moment FAR more hydrazine is being shipped on the country's highways, through towns and cities and inhabited areas, than the amount on this satellite. (And far more dangerous materials, like chlorine.) So I do not buy the public safety argument. If the administration were concerned about public safety, they would take the millions of dollars spent on this intercept and spend it on traffic lights at a dangerous intersection or on vaccines for children."
Gail Collins writes in her New York Times opinion colum today: "Small, paranoid minds wondered if the government was not being completely forthright about its motives. The weapons the military mobilized to do the shooting are part of the missile defense system. Some people think the whole poison-gas story is just an excuse to give the Pentagon a chance to test its hardware.
"This is only conceivable if you can imagine that the people who are in charge of intelligence-gathering might attempt to mislead the American public."
China Aims High
Some of the U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq's troubled Anbar province most likely wondered why the Air Force was sending a space weapons expert to help them fight Sunni insurgents. But U.S. forces there had a tough problem. Traditional artillery was too inaccurate for urban hotbeds like Fallujah, and insurgents took cover when they heard attack aircraft overhead.More on link above ..