George Bush, Space Cowboy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
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. . . .

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