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Motives in Shooting Down Satellite Questioned


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This was the order to a U.S. Navy ship overnight: fire a missile into space and smash a satellite the size of a school bus. Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave the order. The target was a spy satellite. It would've fallen out of orbit carrying 1,000 pounds of toxic fuel.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to tell us what happened instead. And Tom, how did the missile strike go?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon is saying it was very successful. A single missile from the USS Lake Erie shot down the satellite. And it appears, according to a senior defense official, that the fuel tank has been destroyed, and that was the main concern. There's a lot of hydrazine in the fuel tank.

And the fear was the tank would fall to the ground, rupture, and turn into a toxic gas, which could damage lungs and the skin, similar to a chlorine gas. But again, they say now the fuel tank has been destroyed.

INSKEEP: Although, Tom, if you followed this story in the media the last few days, you'd hear lots of speculation that the Pentagon had some other motive. So first I want to ask, is it known how dangerous that fuel really was?

BOWMAN: Well, not very dangerous. They said you would have to stand over it and breathe it for quite some time to really have a problem with it. Again, it dissipates pretty quickly, so the health concern was pretty minimal. Obviously most of the world is water, covered with water, and a very small percentage of the land mass is populated. Some thought that the chances of this falling in a populated area were about three-and-a-half percent.

INSKEEP: Okay. Well, if the odds of some dangerous problem were not that great, that does lead to this question about whether the Pentagon was trying to accomplish something else. Maybe testing missile defense equipment, maybe something else?

BOWMAN: Well, most people believe that the reason they shot it down was they didn't want pieces of this satellite falling into the wrong hands, meaning the Chinese or the Russians. It's a highly sophisticated imagery satellite, meaning it takes pictures, high resolution pictures. So the computers, some of the gadgets aboard, they didn't want someone finding those and maybe reverse engineering those or trying to find out how it works and using it in their own systems.

INSKEEP: So it's a protective move perhaps.

BOWMAN: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Well, now, what is the difference then between this shoot-down and China's decision to shoot down a defunct weather satellite last year, which is a move the United States criticized?

BOWMAN: Right. Well - and China's effort was to test their own anti-satellite system. This satellite was much higher, maybe 450 miles up into space and it shattered the satellite and sent a lot of debris all over space. So that was the big concern there.

The United States is saying, hey, listen, this is much lower orbit, maybe 130, 150 miles high, we're going to shoot it out of the sky, some of it will fall to Earth and burn on the reentry, maybe some part will also stay in space. But they're saying it's much different here.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Tom, how concerned are Pentagon officials that you talk with about the possibility that the next time there's a war, what's going to happen is countries are going to be shooting each other's satellites down?

BOWMAN: You know, it's funny, I just had dinner with a senior defense official last night and he's very concerned about that. There are over 800 satellites up in the sky; half of them are American. And this official was saying the main concern in the future is how do we care for our satellites, how do we protect them? Do we do it with space-based weapons; do we do it with aircraft?

And he mentioned, for example, when everyone's BlackBerrys went down, what would happen if all the ATMs went down? Not to mention the intelligence satellites. So there's a great deal of concern about it and how do you get your arms around it?

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.