Geoff Forden sends along four questions that Congress should ask about the recent anti-satellite mission to destroy USA 193:

Spy Satellite Shoot-down: Four Questions for Congressional Oversight

Geoffrey Forden

Last week’s shoot-down of USA-193 appears to have eliminated whatever small chance existed of that errant satellite harming people on Earth. We will still, however, have to live with the consequences of that action for years to come. Already China and Russia have expressed concern that this was a thinly disguised test of a new space weapon. Increased transparency can minimize these consequences but it seems likely that will only come from Congressional oversight. Having spent much of my time since the shoot-down was announced trying to independently understand this anti-satellite engagement, I feel that I can make some useful suggestions to Congress about what it should ask. Here are the four most important questions Congress should try to answer:

  1. What were the chances that the hydrazine tank would make it to the surface of the Earth intact? The White House and Pentagon were surprisingly silent on the extent of the danger this toxic substance presented to the world. The most concrete information we heard was that aerospace engineers felt that, since the tank was probably frozen after its 14 month sojourn in low Earth orbit, it stood a good chance striking the Earth intact. If we accept that, there was at most a 3.5% chance that the hydrazine would affect anyone on Earth. But just how likely was that the tank would experience a safe passage on its journey to the surface of the Earth? Even a little thought seems to indicate it was extremely slight. Besides the intense heat that would have been generated during its decent — seemingly enough to melt even a half ton of hydrazine— it would also have been subjected to enormous forces as the atmosphere slowed it down. In fact, it appears that it would have been subjected to forces fifty times its weight just caused by atmospheric braking. Resting a twenty-five ton weight on even a large ice cube should break it apart.
  2. Why did the Pentagon shoot it down last Wednesday even though there were rough seas? It has been widely reported that the engagement cost up to $60 million dollars. It seems likely that $40 million of this was meant to be spent on collecting data about the engagement and rough seas would have degraded if not prevented much of that data from being taken. Of course, some of that money was used to determine if the hydrazine tank had been punctured, such as the spectrographic data taken by a flying observatory that looked for signs of hydrazine released into space. But most of the data would undoubtedly have contributed valuable data for improving the interceptor. It appears that the Pentagon gave up that information in order not to have a publicity disaster when reporters started asking if missile defense was only a “fair weather” defense.
  3. Why wasn’t the tank equipped with a release valve? The United States has been put in a very awkward situation where even China, a mere year after its anti-satellite test, feels it can question our actions and motives in space. We could have avoided being placed in the very awkward position of having to choose between possibly endangering people on Earth or helping to legitimate China’s anti-satellite program by simply having a valve that would have vented the toxic gas into space if the spacecraft had not heard from its ground controllers within a month or so. This valve would probably have cost more than 50 cents but it would certainly have been worth while and it is clear that we need it on spy satellites from now on.
  4. How much did this test contribute to legitimizing China’s anti-satellite program? Many of us who have followed this badly thought out program feel that it did. Russia and China, for instance, can point to the vast amounts of money spent of data collection as opposed to the core mission of shooting down the satellite and raise legitimate questions about our intent. Let us hear experts debate this issue in the open. Congress, by directly addressing this issue would increase the transparency of our actions and could lower their negative impact. The public would also feel that its interests were being better served if they could weigh the pros and cons of this action.

A friend of mine, who happens to be a big fan of the SM-3, writes to ask, “I want a 3 cheers for SM-3 from some people in the
media, darnit!” So, perhaps Congress, in addition to Geoff’s 4 questions, might add the one I asked a few months ago about defending NATO with the SM-3:

I don’t get it. The Aegis system is clearly the most functional of our missile defense assets, yet the MDA seems to hate it. Why?