Friday, Feb. 22, 2008 | 2:07 a.m.
The Pentagon said it shot a dysfunctional American spy satellite with a missile Wednesday to protect innocent people. Military officials said the bus-sized satellite was about to reenter the atmosphere with a tank filled with toxic fuel that could have made it to Earth and imperiled people.
Some scientists, such as those at the Federation of American Scientists, question that. They say it was unlikely the fuel tank would have survived reentry, and even if it had, there was little likelihood of its hitting a populated area, considering that 70 percent of the planet is covered by water. If the Pentagon really had a concern about any part of the satellite making it through the atmosphere, it probably centered on the possibility that some of the spy technology would end up in foreign hands.
There may be more to it than that. The U.S. action comes in the middle of a burgeoning space race with China, which has engaged in plenty of space-age saber rattling. Time magazine noted that in 2005 the Chinese National Defense University released a book on war in space that described staging a “shock and awe strike” on an opponent’s satellites.
To prove its point, China shot down one of its aging weather satellites with a missile a year ago. Before that, U.S. officials announced the Chinese government had illuminated American satellites with lasers, reportedly part of an attempt to develop an anti-satellite weapon.
The Pentagon’s action this week certainly sent a message to China, whether that was the intent or not. The danger is that the satellite shooting could escalate the space race and spur on a new Cold War, complete with the fear-fueled strategy of mutual deterrence that led to billions of dollars in military spending.
Now that the United States has fired its shot, we hope that reason will prevail and all space-age countries agree to stop such nonsense and avert a war in space.