Potshots in Space

Potshots in Space

From the heaving deck of the USS Lake Erie, the Bush Administration takes shaky aim at a rogue satellite hurtling to Earh, carrying unknown secrets. The missile attack is purely humanitarian, they assure us.


Gee, Mom, I thought I had this advanced ray-gun invention of mine down pat. It never occurred to me that my hand might shake! Excuse me if I miss the apple and blast your head off…

Or rather: Gosh, Americans, with a “window” now open, we were planning to launch a Raytheon-made Standard Missile 3, part of the advanced, sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, to hit USA-193. You know, that’s the failed spy satellite with 1,000 pounds of hydrazine, a toxic rocket fuel, that’s heading for Earth. But we ran into a little problem and postponed it. The problem? Choppy seas!

Yes, folks, it’s possible that key officials in the Pentagon were fooled by the name of the ocean–the Pacific–from which they plan to take their potshot at a satellite that is part of a secret space program the New York Times once called “perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects.” Lucky the USS Lake Erie with its two SM-3 missiles isn’t floating in the Sea of Tranquility. (Oh, sorry, that’s on the moon!)

Admittedly, the likelihood that the satellite, if never hit, will prove dangerous to Earthlings is remarkably small, according to calculations published at Wired magazine’s Danger Room (where this whole satellite fiasco is being very well covered under the Danger Room-suggested name, “Operation Enduring Shrapnel”). On the other hand, the price tag for the whole choppy-seas operation is nothing to be sniffed at, coming in as it does at an estimated $40 million to $60 million.

When the Chinese shot down an aging weather satellites of theirs back in January 2007, the Bush Administration made it clear that the testing of an anti-satellite weapon was little short of an anti-civilizational act (“…inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area,” as the National Security Council put it at the time). And indeed, that successful test did put a lot of dangerous debris into orbit. Fortunately, since Washington is not faintly interested in checking out the anti-missile systems into which it has poured so many billions of dollars, our act is purely humanitarian. Save the Earth! It’s undoubtedly part of the President’s “freedom agenda.”

Only one problem: we’re talking about the Bush Pentagon here. That automatically brings to mind the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The failing satellite is regularly described as “the size of a bus” and the Aegis system as “batting 12 for 14 in tests in the Pacific Ocean.”

But come on… we know who’s shooting. Along with those unexpected “high seas,” military officials are already issuing strings of pre-excuses of the dog-ate-my-homework variety for a possible failure. As the Los Angeles Times reported today in a piece filled to the brim with such military-fed excuses, “But the task of bringing down the satellite will be much harder, Navy officials warned. The satellite is traveling faster, higher and, perhaps most important, colder than the enemy missiles the system was built to hit.”

A miss (or two or three, if the Navy follows up) surely won’t shock me; and given the cast of characters (think Afghanistan; think Iraq), if, by some miracle, they happened to blow the fuel tank on the satellite sky-high (so to speak), I wouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be even worse news than a miss. We’ve never had an administration so prone to unexpected results and unintended consequences.

In the meantime, a small piece of advice: If you’re heading for Vegas, bet on the bus.

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