go to top

US Downs Satellite, Awaits Fallout

Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008

Reuters reports on the Pentagon's announcement that it successfully intercepted a failing spy satellite last night. There's no confirmation on whether its toxic fuel tank was destroyed, although an explosion upon the intercepting missile's impact indicates that it was. Also no word yet on the eventual groundfall of the material debris. Danger Room's Noah Shachtman has got a great rundown of the technical challenges of the operation, including the eyebrow-raising tidbit that the final command for the intercept launch was given by Bob Gates himself. Talk about a high-voltage video gaming experience.

WPR has been all over this story, with a solid piece on the diplomatic context of the intercept operation, as well as one on some of the strategic maneuvering that preceded it. Suffice it to say that for all the chatter about not interpreting this as a test of space-based military capabilities, this was in essence a test of space-based military capabilities. Other factors might have made this satellite a particularly worthy candidate for the exercise, but I don't think anyone (read: the Russians and Chinese) is being duped here.

By coincidence, I just brought my son to an exhibit on the history of space exploration last weekend, where among other things we saw vintage replicas of the living rooms where people learned of the breakthroughs of the space age: Moscow, circa 1961 and Sputnick, NY circa 1969 and the Apollo moon landing, etc. The way the exhibit recreated the environments where people learned of these events reinforced how far we'd come, not just in terms of technology (there was a reproduction of the tiny Sputnick 2 satellite, where Laika the spacedog became the first living creature to travel and cook to death in space), but also in terms of diplomacy. It's hard to believe, but in forty years we went from the race to the moon, to the International Space Station.

In some ways the logic of great power rivalries makes the militarization of space inevitable. Hopefully it won't jeopardize the cooperative civilian missions that mark our real progress in the great frontier.