Long before the public learned in late January that a damaged U.S. spy satellite carrying toxic fuel was going to crash to Earth, the government secretly assembled a high-powered team of officials and scientists to study the feasibility of shooting it down with a missile.
The order to launch the crash program came Jan. 4, according to defense officials who described Friday how it came to fruition for a final go-ahead decision by President Bush this week. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition they not be identified because of the sensitivity of the work.
The initial order was twofold: Assess whether shooting down the satellite with a missile was even possible, and at the same time urgently piece together the technological tools it would take to succeed.
In a matter of weeks, three Navy warships — the USS Lake Erie, USS Decatur and USS Russell — were outfitted with modified Aegis anti-missile systems, the ships' crews were trained for an unprecedented mission, and three SM-3 missiles were pulled off an assembly line and given a new guidance system.
The decision to attempt a shootdown was disclosed by the Pentagon on Thursday. On Friday officials said it could happen next week, shortly after the space shuttle Atlantis returns from its current voyage at midweek. Officials want the Atlantis to be home to avoid the risk of being hit with satellite debris.
Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday that it's difficult not only to hit the satellite but even to know the best time to shoot.
"It's a bit of an imprecise science at this point," Ham said.
With an eye to the possibility that the missile effort will fail, the government has placed six rescue teams across the country to be prepared to act if the satellite hits the United States, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency memo dated Feb. 14 and obtained by The Associated Press.
The spacecraft contains 1,000 pounds of hydrazine in a tank that is expected to survive re-entry and a fuel tank liner made of beryllium.
FEMA has prepared a guide for emergency responders that includes information about hydrazine and beryllium. The agency warns officials not to pick up any debris or provide mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to anyone who has inhaled hydrazine or beryllium.
The AP first reported on Jan. 26 that the U.S. satellite had lost power and was going to crash to Earth by early March. Normally the government would simply let a dying spacecraft fall on its own, with minuscule odds that it would land in a populated area. But in this case, Bush was persuaded by advisers that it would be worth trying to shoot it down to reduce the risk from the on-board toxic fuel.
As a first of its kind, the shootdown scenario draws on a wide range of scientific and military technologies — from ships and radar sites in the Pacific to high-powered telescopes in Hawaii and elsewhere, to a specially fitted Air Force plane and a Navy ship that snoops on missile tests.
To kick off the planning, the government assembled a high-security team of about 200 people — Navy scientists and missile defense experts, plus representatives of defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, as well as scientists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Lockheed is the manufacturer of the Aegis system and Raytheon makes the SM-3 missile.
The Lake Erie, a destroyer that has participated in a dozen mostly successful tests to intercept a mock enemy missile in flight over the past six years, would take the first shot at the satellite at a distance of about 150 miles, just beyond the reach of Earth's atmosphere.
The SM-3 missile aboard the Lake Erie is equipped with a heat-seeking sensor that has been modified in order to enable it to zero in on the satellite, whose heat "signature" is smaller than that of a ballistic missile in flight.
The SM-3 costs $9.5 million, not counting its one-of-a-kind modifications. It is designed to destroy its target not by detonating an explosive nearby but by slamming directly into the satellite at high speed.
Publicly, officials have expressed confidence that they will succeed in the intercept. Privately, some say there is a rising sense of anxiety, although the consequences of failure are not what they would be in war; if the missile misses, the bus-sized satellite will tumble to Earth on its own, with very small odds that the on-board tank of hydrazine — a toxic fuel — will harm any humans.
David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview Friday he would put the odds of a successful intercept at no better than 50 percent. And he expressed concern that debris from a successful strike could harm the other objects in relatively low orbit.
Wright said the situation presents diplomatic as well as technological challenges for Washington. The Bush administration is trying to convince other countries that the shootdown plan is not a disguised means of developing a program to kill their orbiting communications and intelligence capabilities.
The State Department has instructed U.S. diplomats around the world to inform their host governments that the operation is aimed solely at protecting people from the danger posed by the onboard fuel.
"Our role is to reassure nations around the world as to the nature of what we are trying to do," spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday. "It's an attempt to try to protect populations on the ground."