SOMEWHERE 130 miles above the Pacific Ocean, tumbling around the
Earth at 17,000 mph, a disabled spy satellite met a fiery end late
Wednesday night - destroyed by a US missile-defense interceptor.
The spectacular hit marks a definitive turn in the debate concerning
missile defense, from whether it's technically possible to whether it's
ethically desirable. Many of the same people who'd argued for years
that missile defense couldn't be done now will complain that it
constitutes a nefarious "weaponizing of space."
States normally isn't in the business of shooting down satellites. It
took out the dead National Reconnaissance Office satellite because it
had a full, 1,000-pound tank of toxic rocket fuel that there was some
slim chance could fall on a populated area when it re-entered the
atmosphere in a few weeks. Now, the hydrazine fuel appears to have
burned up in an explosion in space, and small pieces of the 5,000-pound
satellite will fall harmlessly to Earth.
The satellite wasn't
a missile launched with just minutes warning, but hitting it is still a
major success for our missile-defense system. The window for a
successful strike was about 30 seconds, the speeds involved were
mind-boggling, and all the same technologies that would be deployed
against a missile - a Standard Missile 3 rocket launched from an
Aegis-class cruiser and a battery of radar and sensors - were in play.
China immediately lashed out. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said that
they'll continue to monitor "the possible harm caused by the US action
to outer space security and relevant countries." The Chinese commitment
to "outer-space security" was recently exemplified by their shooting
down an aging weather satellite with no warning, then denying that they
had done it for two weeks, and doing it at an orbit so high that 1,600
pieces of space debris will clutter Earth's orbit for years.
The Chinese test - of a system that is explicitly designed to
target satellites - didn't produce much outrage from arms controllers.
It's long been an axiom of arms control that whatever the United States
does is dangerous and a provocation to other countries, while our
adversaries are merely forced into hostile or irresponsible acts by our
recklessness. But the US position on space - like our position on the
high seas - is that everyone should have full and free access to it for
What we have resisted is getting pushed
into an unenforceable treaty against weapons in space that could hamper
our ability to address threats in the future. So many weapons can be
transformed instantly into "space weapons" if they are used against
targets above the Earth's atmosphere - as we've seen with the SM-3
missile - that banning them is impossible. The real agenda of the
Russians and the Chinese is to keep us from ever putting
missile-defense interceptors in space. That would enhance our
capability against their intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
This is how deep the Chinese/Russian commitment to
the peacefulness of space runs: They want the option of launching ICBMs
into space, where they'll travel undisturbed until they re-enter
Earth's atmosphere en route to visiting untold devastation on a target.
China could make a genuine gesture toward peace in space by ending its
rapid ICBM buildup, but its true interest is in preventing us from
checking its missile threat to us and our allies.
been weaponized at least since the Nazis launched V-2 rockets against
Britain. Today, we use satellites not just for commercial purposes, but
for intelligence and military command and control. That's why the
Chinese are so keen to be able to shoot them down.
a pristine last frontier unsullied by human competitiveness and
ferocity, but an extension of our flawed world down here below. It can
be dangerous, which is why it's a comfort that we're building defenses
against threats more serious than a tank of hydrazine.