What goes up must come down. When the thing going up is a man-made satellite, it usually comes down in a blaze of glory, burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere miles above the surface while traveling at Mach 25.
But if it’s a US spy satellite, things get a little trickier. And that’s exactly the case of USA 193, the spy satellite that went awry.
It was launched on December 14, 2006 and successfully made it to orbit. But ground controllers immediately lost contact with it and thus, the ability to control it. So it tumbled aimlessly in space, its orbit slowly decaying, ravished by the effects of the upper atmosphere.
When it became apparent in February, 2008 that the doom of USA 193 was imminent, an unprecedented decision was made to shoot it down. Even though dozens of similar satellites fall harmlessly through the atmosphere and plop into the ocean every year, this one was different.
Why did the government decide that USA 193 needed special attention? There are four good reasons – one “official” reason and three more reasons that are obvious to anyone who watches the political scene.
1. To save or reduce injury to human life.
This was the official reason given. It’s also the most lame reason. What made USA 193 different is that it contained a fuel tank of 1,000 pounds of highly toxic frozen hydrazine. Satellites that are decommissioned usually have virtually empty tanks. Since this one was still full, it was feared that it would survive re-entry and cause harm to anyone unfortunate enough to come in its path.
That’s a fair argument, but mostly without merit. Two thirds of the earth’s surface is water. Most of the land is uninhabited. There was virtually no chance that the satellite would come down within a thousand miles of any human being. Even if the fuel tank survived re-entry, it would certainly be breached and the highly volatile fuel would have dissipated high in the atmosphere. A cow in an open field would stand a greater chance of being hit than a human.
Regardless of the “official” reason given for shooting it down, there must be more. Well, here it is:
2. To PREVENT military intelligence data from ending up in enemy hands.
This is probably the best reason, but it’s one that the government will never own up to. And you can’t blame them. Football players plan their strategies in a huddle for a reason – you don’t want to tell the enemy what you’re doing. You don’t even want to tell the enemy that you don’t want to tell the enemy! Duh.
The military is still smarting from the Stealth bomber’s lone casualty in the 1999 Kosovo war. Images of Russian scientist pouring over the pride of the US military was both an embarrassment and a strategic loss. They weren’t going to risk sensitive secrets surviving re-entry and being sold to the highest clandestine bidder.
3. To TEST our satellite-hunting ability.
Officially, the US doesn’t have a satellite-hunting program. Indeed, the US government was noticeable peeved when China tested its satellite seek-and-destroy technology by obliterating a defunct weather satellite.
In reality, the US military could probably blow up anything it wants to. But it’s kinda hard to be sure unless you actually have a good reason to. This was a perfect opportunity. The Chinese blew up a satellite in a much higher and stable orbit, creating a debris field that will perillize space travel for years. But here was an opportunity to blast a satellite that was coming down anyway. Whatever debris is created would actually be less harmful – not more – to aviation as a result.
They’ll never admit it, but the military has had this technology in their back pocket for years, just itching for a chance to prove it.
4. To DEMONSTRATE our satellite-hunting ability.
We “test” things to prove to ourselves. We “demonstrate” things to prove to others. This is the signal to the world: the US can seek-and-destroy whatever you send our way. So don’t even think about it.
The government could never really say that, of course. But with video of a fireball a hundred miles in the air as a result of a 22,000 mph collision of a US Navy SM-3 missile and a bus-sized piece of space-junk with toxic frozen fuel and our country’s most precious military technology, who needs to “say” it?
Of course, they got just the video they needed. On the evening of February 21, 2008, the USS Lake Erie fired one missile from the Pacific Ocean, just west of Hawaii. They didn’t need the two spare missiles they had standing by. USA 193 never knew what hit it; it didn’t have time to duck.
Officially, the US government “saved and reduced injury to human life”.
Unofficially, we notified the world that we’re a force to be dealt with.
And there’s no shame in that.