The sky is falling, the sky is falling! Or at least that's what the Pentagon would have had us believe in early February when it announced that a disabled U.S. spy satellite could crash land somewhere in North America sometime in March. The satellite, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in December 2006, lost power shortly after launch and entered a into a decaying orbit that would eventually have led it to crash back to earth.
In order to minimize any potential property damage or injury the school-bus-sized satellite and its thousand-pound tank of hydrazine fuel might cause, the military authorized the Feb. 21 launch of a modified SM-3 missile from an AEGIS-class cruiser to intercept it. The military reported the intercept a success and the catastrophe averted, much to the relief of anyone who was paying attention, and the media characteristically lost interest in the situation now that a sensational threat no longer loomed.
But what about the further-reaching, less immediate consequences of the military's actions? I doubt the Pentagon simply forgot about China's similar destruction of one of its own weather satellites in a January 2007 test, or the diplomatic backlash (much of it from our own government) that ensued. The global community accused China of upsetting the tenuous diplomatic equilibrium between superpowers - consider the role satellite detection plays in monitoring potential nuclear weapon launches, and the threat posed by the potential to lose that ability - not to mention creating a veritable minefield of orbital debris.
Too much debris in the earth's orbit could result in damages to vital telecommunications, navigation, weather and military satellites that could literally set the world economy back by decades. In light of this serious threat, China's test was not merely diplomatically irresponsible, but dangerous to the welfare of the entire global community.
Considering the backlash toward China's actions, its outcry against our own satellite intercept seems well-founded. Though proponents of the procedure justify it as necessary safety measure, there is much to suggest that it was based on ulterior motives. The satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, contained state-of-the-art imaging equipment to be used for surveillance, and it stands to reason that the Pentagon would have wanted to ensure that any sensitive data stayed out of the wrong hands.
Furthermore, a large man-made object reentering Earth's atmosphere is not an unprecedented event; in 1979, the Skylab space station burned up over Australia without incident (though the small town of Esperance, Australia did fine the United States $400 for littering - a fine that remains unpaid). The 79 tons of debris that was Skylab dwarf the 2.5 ton spy satellite, raising questions of just how dangerous its reentry really would have been.
Though I'm sure safety was on the top brass' mind, a demonstration to China that the United States, too, can shoot down satellites seems in keeping with the atmosphere of mounting tension between the superpowers. Seemingly just the latest pissing match in a larger developing conflict, could China's test and the United States' own subsequent satellite-swatting be the beginning of a new space arms race? Considering the extreme cost to the economically-struggling United States, and the unilateral pressure this rivalry would place on all nations to put weapons in space in lieu of focusing on more humanitarian concerns, this is a race better not run. I enjoyed "Star Wars" as much as the next guy, but I sincerely hope that the future looks nothing like it.
Matt Dubois is a senior English major, but totally not a nerd.