February 15, 2008
U.S. military officials said they are going to shoot down a broken spy satellite that is expected to crash toward earth sometime in late February. After saying earlier that they would just let the satellite fall where it may, officials now say that a highly toxic fuel onboard the craft, hydrazine, could leak upon landing and harm people. “If we fire at the satellite, the worst is that we miss,” said Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The regret factor of not acting clearly outweighs the regret factors of acting.” (ABC News)
What the commentators said
My first “reaction was ‘coooooool,’” said Jason Zengerle in The New Republic’s The Plank blog. But after discussing the satellite-destruction plan with a friend whose “career as an international arms dealer” didn’t quite pan out, the official explanation about hydrazine does seem kind of suspect. It is a new spy satellite with cutting-edge technology, right? “I just wonder if Bruce Willis isn’t somehow involved.”
Oh please, said Frank James in the Chicago Tribune’s The Swamp blog. The rumors of at-risk “classified material” running around the “blogosphere” are nonsense. Any “important stuff” on board the falling vessel will certainly “be heated to the point of being useless for another nation’s intelligence gathering purposes.” But it isn’t so unlikely that “this intentional friendly fire” is aimed as much at the Chinese as it is the hydrazine tank. When China shot down an old weather satellite last year, it “sent tremors through the U.S. defense establishment.” If we succeed, the message to China would be: “Two can play at the satellite-destroying game.”
Well, doesn’t that put us “in the awkward position of firing into space after heavily criticizing China for doing” basically the same thing? said Mike Nizza in The New York Times’ The Lede blog (free registration). At the time we said that shooting down a satellite was tantamount to “illegally testing weapons in space and increasing space debris.” But hypocrisy could be the least of our worries—what if don’t even hit the thing? There’s a pretty small window of time and it’s a pretty small target, and if we mistime the shot, the missile will send debris into space that could threaten other satellites and even the International Space Station. “Does the risk of hydrazin to humans on Earth outweigh the risk to humans and billions of dollars of equipment” in space?
Try 4 Risk-Free Issues of The Week magazine.