The Satellite Shootdown: Behind the Scenes

A warship's missile hits its target to cheers from the control room.

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A modified tactical Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) launches from the USS Lake Erie impacting a non-functioning NRO satellite.

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Capt. R. M. Hendrickson stepped across the deck of the guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie last Saturday afternoon to a bank of ballistic missile launch tubes, motioning to the particular 2-by-2-foot location from which a missile flew from the ship positioned at the time some 420 miles northwest of Hawaii.

The missile hit its target, destroying a defective intelligence satellite that was falling toward Earth at 17,000 miles per hour. It was unclear where the satellite would have hit had it crashed, most likely into the ocean. But the Pentagon had expressed particular concern about the school bus-size satellite's fuel tank filled with 1,000 pounds of hydrazine—which defense officials soberly described in a news release as "a hazardous fuel which could pose a danger to people on earth."

The USS Lake Erie is a warship equipped with the Navy's sophisticated Aegis weaponry, an advanced radar-based defensive system that is normally used against antiship missiles and other threats. This technology was adapted for the satellite shootdown.

In his stateroom, Hendrickson pops in a video of the missile's launch and of the ship's combat information center at the moment of impact.

The crew describes the launch sound as deafening. "You'll see the first booster falling off," Hendrickson says as he narrates the video. "It just comes right back into the ocean." Seconds later, someone calls out, "Transition! Transition!" This is the signal that the missile is about to reach its target. Those in the control room are quiet for a moment, eyes riveted to the video monitors in front of them.

"Bang!" one operator says, breaking the silence. "Yes! Yes!" shouts another, to cheers, high-fives, and pumped fists.

During a replay, Hendrickson points out where the flames shooting from the missile's afterburners have singed the ship's bell during takeoff. "We haven't shined it yet," he says. "As a reminder."

With the USS Lake Erie now moored at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Hendrickson, the ship's commanding officer, spoke with U.S. News about the strike last week hailed by Pentagon officials as a success for the U.S. missile-defense program—and about the criticism that followed from Russia and China that the missile strike was a thinly veiled effort to hone America's antisatellite capabilities.

Excerpts from the interview:

The lead up

We'd been practicing for a month and a half when we got told we would possibly do the mission and kept working up with a team of government experts and technicians as well as industry partners, the folks that designed the Aegis weapons system and the missile itself, and started tracking the object at different times when we could when we were underway to get radar cross-section data and that sort of thing, which was helping build the eventual program and software that we used to do it.

Obviously, there was a lot of anticipation building up to it. Each time we practiced, each time we tracked, it got better. We went over probably 120, maybe 115 practice runs, what it would look like when we did it.

The hardest part

It was a little different than our normal ballistic missile shots for a couple of reasons. One, primarily because it's a straight running target versus an up and down [like a ballistic missile], and it was at an incredible speed. The second thing is that normal...shots that we've been doing over the past couple years have been operational in nature, as in only a couple people on the ship know when it's happening. So it's very much a test of the crew and system. Where this time we knew exactly when it was happening, that sort of thing. Probably the hardest part in the whole run-up to it was as it started breaking in the press we were trying to finish our training and we were on our way over to the ammo magazine to load the missiles and then proceed to sea, and I was thankful we got out to sea before it all broke.

Out to sea

We were out to sea for about a week and a half before the decision was made. Obviously, the morning of, the concern from the senior leadership was that the space shuttle came down and got out of the way. I'm not sure where all of the heavy weather reports came, it was never really heavy weather. But be that as it may, about midmorning we got the order in that the secretary had OK'd the mission, and the ship from that point on was actually very calm. Obviously, the closer it got, there was a lot of anticipation. The firing team was very calm when we did it. With the exception of the whoosh as it went out of the launcher, it was just as we scripted it.... The missile seeker when it opened its eyes had it right dead center, and obviously we hit it at a good strike angle. There was a lot of cheering in combat when we hit it.