HONOLULU—"It was like something out of Star Wars," said a senior defense official who watched in a Pacific Command control room here as the U.S. military shot down its broken reconnaissance satellite last night. The satellite was traveling at upwards of 17,000 mph with 1,000 pounds of hydrazine--that's "a hazardous fuel which could pose a danger to people on Earth," as the Department of Defense explained in a release.
A camera mounted on the missile shot from the USS Lake Erie showed it plowing apparently head-on into the satellite some 144 miles over the Pacific Ocean. The geometry of the endeavor was, in a word, tricky. The defense official described the challenge to U.S. News as "hitting a bullet with a bullet."
U.S. plans to destroy the satellite sparked an outcry from Russia, which accused the United States of using the incident as a thinly veiled excuse to test its missile defense systems. The Russian Defense Ministry argued that the Pentagon had failed to provide "enough arguments" for the operation.
China, too, criticized the operation, though less vocally. Still, that fact prompted considerable eye-rolling among defense officials, since the Chinese came under intense international criticism for using a ballistic missile to shoot down an orbiting satellite last year--the first such test in two decades.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that the key element in the U.S. satellite shoot-down has been transparency: "What we've tried to do from the beginning is to be as open as possible" with other countries about the operation.
He added that the U.S. military system used to shoot down the satellite was actually "not designed for this capability" and had to be modified to do the job.