All posts in “space”

ROSKOSMOS Head on Recent Failures – “…Sabotage”

President Vladimir Putin (right) with General Vladimir Popovkin at the Voronezh Radar Station in a 2007 file photo (ITAR-TASS)

When all else fails – and your butt is on the line with a major PR catastrophe looming, it is best to man-up, square your shoulders and do your duty as organizational lead by assuming responsibility before The Big Guy…unless you are the head of Russia’s ROSKOSMOS space agency.  Then you can hint darkly about “sabotage”

Roscosmos director Vladimir Popovkin’s comments to state-backed daily “Izvestiya” echo a recent allegation by a retired Russian general who said a U.S. radar in Alaska might have emitted an electromagnetic burst to disable a mission to probe Mars’ moon Phobos in November.
“It’s not clear why our setbacks often occur when the vessels are traveling through what for Russia is the ‘dark’ side of the Earth — in areas where we don’t see the craft and don’t receive its telemetry readings,” Popovkin reportedly told “Izvestiya.” “I don’t want to blame anyone, but today there are some very powerful countermeasures that can be used against spacecraft whose use we can’t exclude.”

Never mind the fact that sloppy manufacturing, nonexistent quality assurance, much less configuration management might perhaps to be to blame?  Nope – easier to blame it on nefarious doings over on the dark side of the Bering Strait…

Just as the star-crossed BULAVA SLBM suffered a series of test failures stemming from absent quality controls and poor engineering design that caused a series of upper stage failures (finally corrected after a detailed autopsy of the design and manufacturing process), the PHOBOS-GRUNT mission was doomed by last minute modifications that were not part of the original design, poorly executed and with little, if any risk management applied.  The net result — when it came time to position the spacecraft to burn the thrusters setting it on path to Mars, they failed to start.  The satellite began to drift and when it was unable to orient itself to allow the solar panels to provide power to the spacecraft, it became so much space junk.  $5B rubles worth of space junk with over 7 tons of highly toxic nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine used as fuel – and no means to conduct an intercept like the US did in 2008.  So, in a few days when Doc Newton is proven right (again) and Phobos-Grunt re-enters the atmosphere, there is a very real possibility some larger pieces may survive and make it all the way to the ground with the potential for property damage and personal injury.  The good news, if one wants to call it that, is that unlike that 2008 satellite which had been on orbit long enough for the hydrazine to freeze solid (and thereby improve chances of survival on re-entry), the odds are that isn’t in play here and most of the really toxic stuff will burn up in the upper atmosphere.

Still, in light of the other very public failures of multiple launches last year – including a failed ISS re-supply mission that forced a reduction in manning for the space station, questions are mounting regarding the direction and management of Russia’s space program, from outside as well as within:

In late November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hinted at the “need to carry out a detailed review” of the space program’s problems “and punish those guilty.”

Given that Popovkin’s appointment came about when his predecessor was fired over a failed SATCOM launch and in light of Medvedev’s hints of further punishments, perhaps it is understandable that the old chestnut of “sabotage” is trotted out – but the track record isn’t so good for others that have tried:

They were all disloyal. I tried to run the ship properly by the book, but they fought me at every turn. If the crew wanted to walk around with their shirttails hanging out, that’s all right, let them! Take the towline – defective equipment, no more, no less. But they encouraged the crew to go around, scoffing at me and spreading wild rumors about steaming in circles and then ‘Old Yellowstain.’ I was to blame for Lieutenant Maryk’s incompetence and poor seamanship. Lieutenant Maryk was the perfect officer, but not Captain Queeg. Ah, but the strawberries! That’s, that’s where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, and with, with geometric logic, that, that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox did exist. And I would have produced that key if they hadn’t pulled the Caine out of action. I, I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officer. (He pauses – looks at all the questioning faces that stare back at him, and realizes that he has been ranting and raving.) Naturally, I can only cover these things from memory… (Caine Mutiny)

Vlad, in the interest of post-Cold War relations and the big red reset button, allow me to offer another time honored excuse rational explanation:

Yep — gremlins

The Missiles of Winter (I): International Conventions

09broad190If news reports coming from South Korea and echoed through the West are to be believed, North Korea is moving towards another attempt at launching a Taepo Dong – 2 IR/ICBM, ostensibly as a space launch vehicle (SLV).  This would be the third such attempt, with previous attempts in July 2006 and Sept 1998 ending in failure. (Note that the 1998 launch was with what is now considered to be a shorter range variant identified as a Taepo Dong -1).  Most of this is speculation, albeit likely informed speculation based on the gleanings of what few bits of information have fallen through the cracks in the intel world’s wall.  Such speculation – and the concern raised by the DPRK’s typical silence or disinformation campaign, would be alleviated were the DPRK to hew to the collection of five conventions governing the access to and use of outer space and celestial bodies, as acceded to or  ratified by major space-faring nations including the US, Russia, Europe, Japan, China, Indonesia, India and Israel.  Notable by their absence as well is the most recent member of the group of states able to place an object on orbit, Iran.  Given their respective histories of collaboration and lack of transparency to the outside world for their missile and WMD programs, one supposes this should not be surprising.  Unfortunately, it generates needless tension and promotes an atmosphere conducive to misinterpretation and over-reaction where it need not be present.

This need not be the case were the DPRK and Iran to accede to the Outer Space Treaty and the other international conventions regarding space access and use.  The five treaties and agreements constituting this convention on space use include:

These five treaties have established a series of legal precedence whose purpose, similar to those governing the Antarctic continent and the seas, seek to establish a set of rules and principles of behavior for the use of the commons of outer space by all nations and peoples. Specifically, they provide for non-appropriation of outer space by any one country, arms control (e.g., agreement not to place nuclear or other WMD on orbit or on celestial bodies like the Moon), the freedom of exploration, liability for damage caused by space objects, the safety and rescue of spacecraft and astronauts, the prevention of harmful interference with space activities and the environment, the notification and registration of space activities, scientific investigation and the exploitation of natural resources in outer space and the settlement of disputes.
Of particular concern and interest in the current case is that principle of “notification and registration of space activities” as established by the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space.  Under that convention, member states are requested to place information on what they are placing into orbit in a public repository.  To date, the US, for example, has over 2005 objects listed – sample documents are here (including the first Vanguard satellite still on orbit) and here (includes Apollo 13) – the searchable database is available here .
All of this serves a couple of purposes.  One, with the information obtained, is to serve to hopefully de-conflict orbits and ensure there are no unintended collisions with subsequent consequence management efforts to mitigate debris. (Alas, as Low Earth Orbit is increasingly populated with active and inactive satellites and “launch debris” (the latter of which could consist of anything from retaining bolts to entire, defunct upper stages) the likelihood of “inadvertent encounters” like the recent one between an inactive Soviet-era store-and-dump COMSAT and an active satellite that was part of the Iridium-constellation, will probably grow more common.)  Another is to bring a measure of transparency into space launch operations thereby ensuring SLV launches are not mistaken for a hostile IR/ICBM launch as in many cases, the SLV may be derivative of the latter.  One will notice while reviewing the documents linked above that the purpose of the vehicle is generalized enough that concerns over inadvertent compromise of classified missions may be mitigated.
While these conventions do not necessarily preclude irresponsible behavior (cf: PRC 2007 ASAT test), for the most part they have provided a beneficial condominium for operations by space-faring nations.  Unfortunately, neither Iran nor DPRK are parties to any of the above and as such, inject uncertainty and concern with their operations, nascent as they maybe.  Where tensions are already high, as is the periodic case on the Korean peninsula, the opportunities for miscalculation are rife.  Consider – during the July 2006 launch attempt, the DPRK also fired a number of short- and medium range missiles within a few minutes of the launch of the TD-2.  Claiming the TD-2 was an SLV launch vice a test of an ICBM in that context, underscores the provocative nature of the evolution, generating mistrust and enforcing concern – leading to heightened states of alert for subsequent evolutions, like the one presumably in the offering. If these two states, generally considered to be poster-children for the prototypical “rogue state” wish improved engagement on the world stage, one step in the right direction would be accession and adherence to these five conventions.  Certainly it would be welcomed as one small step in the direction of normalization of relations each claims to seek.

Next: International counter-proliferation regimes

The Problem(s) With Debris – 2009 Edition

A little over two years ago, China conducted the now notorious direct ascent ASAT shot on the Fengyun-1 satellite which was in a polar orbit.  We’ve commented extensively at the time and a year hence on the issues raised by this shot.  So where do we stand just past the second anniversary?  Well, like rabbits, the debris field is growing:

leo-asat15The NASA report said that two years after China used a ground-based missile to destroy the retired Chinese Fengyun-1C weather satellite in an 800-kilometer orbit, SSN is tracking nearly 2,800 pieces of debris measuring at least 5 centimeters in diameter. “The estimated population of debris larger than 1 centimeter is greater than 150,000,” NASA said. “The Fengyun-1C debris cloud easily constitutes the largest collection of fragments in Earth orbit.” (

What brought our attention to this latest state of affairs was a report of another satellite potentially in trouble – this time a Soviet-era plasma-a__1test platform based on a RORSAT (radar ocean-reconnaissance satellite), powered by a prototype reactor (Topaz) that used pressurized sodium-potassium as a coolant for the reactor.  The reactor was necessary to generate the high-power required by the satellite for the ocean-surveillance mission.  Placed in a polar orbit between 774 and 803 km, the Plasma-A satellite acted as a test bed not only for the functionality of the Topaz-reactor, but taking advantage of the power generated by the reactor, also tested electrostatic maneuvering engines composed of six SPT-70 Stationary Plasma Thrusters, ion orientation and stabilization engines, solar sensors, magnetic momentum compensators and multi-channel wave devices (one of the ancillary missions was to map out the Earth’s magnetosphere for a magnetic-based navigation system). (Gunter’s space page).  Specifically what appears to have happened was what NASA is calling a “fragmentation event” that occurred 4 July 2008 while the satellite was in at 800 km altitude, releasing up to 30 small pieces of debris, conjectured to be metal spheres extruded from a conjectured leak in the reactor’s coolant system.  Of note – the satellite is slated to eventually re-enter the atmosphere sometime around mid-century and is supposed to burn up well high in the upper atmosphere.  Unlike the RORSATs which separated into two parts upon termination of mission, one being the reactor body which was moved to a higher orbit, Kosmos-1818/Plasma-A remained a single object.

A couple of theories are making the round as to what caused the event — one being that the plumbing for the metal coolant became thermal stressed from its prolonged exposure on-orbit,weakened and cracked releasing the liquid metal which promptly froze.  Another, with some traction, is that the release was the result of a collision with debris.  Where the debris came from is another issue — in its present orbit there is debris from older RORSATs that have leaked or otherwise left debris behind.  In fact, the present orbit transits some of the highest debris-laden areas – including the growing debris field from the Chinese ASAT, and serves to highlight – again, the growing issue of on-orbit debris.

Orbital debris – the gift that keeps on giving…

40 Years Ago Today: Apollo 8


apollo-8-patchap8-ksc-68pc-329Forty years ago, man had slipped the gravitational pull that had kept him shackled  in orbit around his home planet, and boldly struck out for the Moon.  

Forty years ago, in a live broadcast on Christmas Eve  for the ages, he sent back stunning images of his world and our perspective was forever changed: 

William Anders:

“For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you”.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

Jim Lovell:

“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

Frank Borman:

“And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”


Borman then added, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

To which all we would add is “Amen

2010: The Year We Lose Contact?

“I’ll take ‘Space’ for $100B Alex”

“Russia, South Ossetia, Georgia and the ISS.”

“What is – How the US could find itself locked out of the ISS after 2010 Alex”

Russia’s invasion and occupation of South Ossetia could have far reaching effects off world.  In a scenario strikingly reminiscent of the movie, 2010, increased tensions between the US and Russia now cold lead to the loss of US access to the ISS for at least 4 or 5 years.  Yep – the same ISS the US has put over $100 billion (that’s Billion with a capital “B” by GAO estimates) could be blocked to US and international partner access, save Russia, after 2011 if an agreement to allow our astronauts to continue to ride Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS is allowed to expire in 2009.  Bad as that is, the infuriating thing is we have no one to blame but our own short-sighted selves for this state of affairs.

It began when we put all our manned spaceflight eggs in the Shuttle basket, eschewing further development of traditional rockets for manned space boosters.  Experience with operating the shuttle feet and the losses of first the Challenger and later Columbia unmasked the fallacy of that policy, and so now, 30 years after the last Apollo mission, we have Apollo on steroids, the Constellation program, which maybe will reach IOC with the first manned launch in seven years, 2015.  Barring, of course, more major technical issues.  In the meantime, the Bush administration has decided to end the shuttle’s operations by 2010, meaning from this point, after next month’s shuttle flight to re-service the Hubble, there will be only 9 flights left.  The gap-filler is a contract, with Russia, to fly US and international partner astronauts on Soyuz which expires in 2012.  And that is possible only because of a waiver to the Iran-North Korea-Syria Non-Proliferation Act which forbids U.S. purchase of high technology goods from Russia. A new contract (and exemption) were being held-up in Congress which had put it on the back burner (along with all sorts of other legislation) before it went into recess and now, with the Russian invasion of Georgia, it’s likely there won’t be any action soon on the new contract for the remainder of this year and likely as not, in 2009 either.  And therein lies the problem, for the Soyuz production line requires about a three year planning process for new modules.  Without an agreement, extra modules for supporting transport of our astronauts to ISS in 2012 and beyond, will not be made.

soyuz spacecraft

So now, according to current NASA administrator Mike Griffin, he is looking into extending the shuttle past 2010:

…The first and most obvious possibility is there won’t be any American or international partners on the space station after Dec. 31 of 2011. That’s a possibility. Another possibility is that we will be told to continue flying shuttle and we would be given extra money to do so, in which case our Ares and Orion could be kept on track and we would no longer have a dependence on Russia.

“A third possibility is we could be told to keep flying shuttle, not be given any extra money, in which case we don’t get Ares and Orion anytime soon and we still have a gap, it’s just further out in time. All right? And all of these things ignore the fact that flying shuttle does not ameliorate in truth our dependence upon the Russians because we still need them for crew rescue. So if we continue to fly shuttle, either we’re flying without crew rescue capability, in other words putting crew on station and then leaving them there without a way to get home in an emergency, which we have never done, or our tenure on station is only during the two weeks you get when the shuttle visits a couple of times a year.”(Emphasis added)

To say this sad sate of affairs fully reflects the abysmal lack of vision, planning and funding on the part of several administrations and Congress would be a gross understatement.  NASA as well, holds plenty of blame, especially in decades worth of gross mismanagement and lack of vision.  And now, all those chickens are coming home to roost as the agency is forced to look at extending a prohibitively expensive and aging system to avoid the prospect of not having access to a system we have put the majority of funds into to build and operate.

Short-sighted vision.

Bad policy.

Haphazard funding.

It’s a rotten way to run any program, much less a space program.

In 1971, when the Nixon Administration was looking at canceling the Apollo program and not approving the development of the Space Shuttle – then Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Casper Weinberger stated that such a policy: “…would be confirming in some respects a belief that I fear is gaining credence at home and abroad: That our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward, reducing our defense commitments, and voluntarily starting to give up our super-power status and our desire to maintain world superiority.” Three and a half decades later this seems equally valid, if not more so given the increased number of countries that are making significant investments in space.  Both candidates are generally supportive of the America’s space program, but neither seems to go beyond generalizations and more of the same – the same thought processes that have put us where we presently find ourselves.

Something needs to be done to re-awaken the excitement and sense of purpose present in the early 60’s following Kennedy’s call for a landing on the Moon.  Something that will inspire a nation to look beyond its nose, to grow a new generation of scientists and engineers, to inspire a public to “look at the way thigs could be and ask, ‘why not’ “

And maybe 2010 will be the year we keep contact…



Flightdeck Friday: Hubble At 100K


Blasting, billowing, bursting forth
With the power of ten
    billion butterfly sneezes
Man with his flaming pyre
Has conquered the wayward breezes
Climbing to tranquility
Far above the cloud
Conceiving the heavens
Clear of misty shroud…

– Moody Blues, Higher and Higher

Growing up we were insatiable in our appetite for anything related to space – missiles, telescopes, books on astronomy – or anything by Clarke or Asimov (and later Pournelle & Niven).  Time spent contemplating watery, pale views of Mars or Jupiter (courtesy atmospherics) was supplemented with black and white photography in accompanying astronomy books.  When we first saw 2001 and the explosion of color and texture possible in space – well beyond the grainy low res color TV pictures or 8mm films of the time, we sat transfixed in wonderment.

And so it was in great anticipation we awaited the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and were sorely disappointed when the initial imagery came back all blurry.  But a visit by a follow-on crew of orbital optemitrists remedied that situation and the results – well, the results have been nothing short of breathtaking.  See for yourself:



Recently, after over 18 years on orbit, the HST passed its 100,000th orbit.  The HST is slated for one more servicing flight by the Shuttle astronauts, later this year.  After that another good ten years will be expected from Hubble before it is de-orbited at the end of its lifespan.  When it does, it will close the circle in a firey death, probably somewhere over the Pacific.  But the images of this vast, beautiful universe around us will remain – and that is its legacy, along with those thousands of engineers, scientists, astronauts and dreamers who conceived, built, put it on orbit and operate it today.

Vanguard 1: Fifty Years Later


Requirement: 1) place a satellite in orbit during the IGY; 2) accomplish a scientific experiment in orbit; 3) track the satellite and ensure its attainment of orbit.  Because of an ongoing classified program to put reconnaissance satellites in orbit (Project WS-117 using Air Force Thor MRBM’s – which later became the Korona-series of reconnaissance satellites), preference was for a civilian-derived booster and payload.  In August 1955, the DOD Committee on Special Capabilities chose the Navy’s proposal as it appeared most likely to be able to place a satellite in orbit by spring 1958.

Designated Project Vanguard, the program was placed under Navy management and DoD monitorship. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington was given overall responsibility, while funding came from the National Science Foundation. The director was John P. Hagen (1908–1990), an astronomer who in 1958 would become the assistant director of space flight development with the formation of NASA.  NRL was also responsible for developing the launch vehicles, developing and installing the satellite tracking system, and designing, constructing, and testing the satellites. The tracking system was called Minitrack – Minitrack stations, designed, built, and initially operated by NRL, were placed on a North-South line running along the east coast of North America and the west coast of South America. Minitrack was the forerunner of another NRL-developed system called NAVSPASUR, which remains operational today under the control of the Air Force and is a major producer of spacecraft tracking data.

Spacecraft and Subsystems

The spacecraft was a 1.47-kg aluminum sphere 16.5 cm in diameter. It contained a 10-mW, 108-MHz mercury-battery powered transmitter and a 5-mW, 108.03-MHz transmitter powered by six square (roughly 5 cm on a side) solar cells mounted on the body of the satellite. Six 30 cm aerials protruded from the sphere. The transmitters were used primarily for engineering and tracking data, but were also used to determine the total electron content between the satellite and ground stations. Vanguard also carried two thermistors which measured the interior temperature over 16 days in order to track the effectiveness of the thermal protection.


The Vanguard rocket was designed as a three-stage vehicle. The first stage was a General Electric y-405 liquid-fueled engine (designated XLR50-GE-2 by the Navy), derived from the engine of the RTV-N-12a Viking. The second stage was the Aerojet General AJ10-37 (XLR52-AJ-2) liquid-fueled engine, a variant of the engine in the RTV-N-10 Aerobee. Finally, the third stage was a solid-propellant rocket motor. All three-stage Vanguard flights except the last one used a motor built by the Grand Central Rocket Company. Vanguard had no fins, and the first and second stages were controlled by gimballed nozzles. The second stage also housed the vehicle’s telemetry system, the inertial guidance system and the autopilot. The third stage was spin stabilized, the spin being imparted by a turn-table on the second stage before separation.

Mission Profile

The three stage launch vehicle placed Vanguard into a 654 x 3969 km 134.2 minute orbit inclined at 34.25 degrees. Original estimates had the orbit lasting for 2000 years, but it was discovered that solar radiation pressure and atmospheric drag during high levels of solar activity produced significant perturbations in the perigee height of the satellite, which caused a significant decrease in its expected lifetime to only about 240 years. The battery powered transmitter stopped operating in June 1958 when the batteries ran down. The solar powered transmitter operated until May 1964 (when the last signals were received in Quito, Ecuador) after which the spacecraft was optically tracked from Earth.

Although Vanguard was the fourth vehicle to be orbited (following Sputniks 1 and 2 and Explorer 1) it has far outlived it predecessors and remains to this day, the longest lived manmade object still on orbit.



The Shenlong Spaceplane: Hyperventilating Hypersonics or Real Threat?

"At a minimum, Washington should delay the planned 2010 retirement of the Space Shuttle until a new space plane can replace it, as a way to retain a deterring potential military capability. China’s unwillingness to comment on its military space plans, coupled with the Shenlong space plane, confirms its larger aversion to military transparency. The U.S. and its allies have little choice but to develop the capabilities to defend their interests and assets in space." – Richard Fisher in the 3 Jan 08 edition of  the WSJ-Asia

"Paint, plywood and composite tile from local Home Depot – $125; Photoshop – $250; Tricking the US into keeping in service an obsolete and hideously expensive system – priceless" – Anonymous commentator

A jet bomber makes an appearance at a May Day celebration, a satellite is orbited, a picture surfaces on the frontpage of a newspaper or in a blog and suddenly the status quo becomes the status quo ante…or does it?  In each of those cases a fragment of reality challenges assumptions and forces a reassessment – but without a full(er) vetting, one runs the risk of over-reach.

Continue Reading…

The Problem With Debris: The ASAT Test One Year Later

About this time last year (11 Jan), China conducted the now infamous direct-ascent ASAT (Anti-Satellite) hit-to-kill test.  We have written to some degree about it already – notably here and here.  Both articles describe the notorious aspect of the test – the addition of significant amounts of debris to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  How much?  This one act increased by 10% the amount of orbital debris that will continue to hazard satellites in LEO for up to a century (to include, by the way, future shuttle missions as well as the ISS).  Illustrated below, we provide first the impact scenario on 11 Jan, 5 minutes post-attack impact and follow that with a more recent illustration:

By this past December (2007), the debris count, according to NASA’s Orbital Debris Count Office, had reached and surpassed 35,000 pieces 1 cm in size or larger (basically big enough to be tracked and in turn, be a hazard to on-orbit vehicles and spacewalkers).  Underscoring the seriousness of the event, the Center for Space Standards & Innovation (CSSI)) has tagged this event as the largest debris generating event in history (these illustrations and the accompanying video were generated by CSSI).  The view as of 5 December 2007:


 So what impact, if any, was felt in 2007?  One of the early and immediate impacts, or rather, attempts to avoid impacts as it were, according to UPI was a repositioning of the ISS to avoid debris in early February.  Within the US government it caused a degree of consternation that (surprise!) there is a degree of vulnerability of our satellite constellation to interdiction and that we may be overly reliant on said constellation without appropriate fallback solutions.  The degree of surprise and consternation was noted with a certain sense of wry satisfaction in some corners (we won’t say where) as it had been hammered on for some few years now in anlayses and exercises.  The usual rejoinder was that since we (the US) had renounced our own nascent ASAT capabilities almost fifteen years ago, certainly no one else was going to develop those capabilities (or, as was more commonly the case, extreme hubris was such that many senior public and private sector leaders thought no one else could develop those capabilties for quite some time…).  These attitudes persisted despite such real world events as several instances of intentional jamming or interefence with GPS or communications satellites and a 2006 instance of China illuminating a US reconnaissance satellite with a ground-based laser.

The ASAT test served notice that certain niceties and false assumptions that US space leadership had been operating under were just that – false assumptions.  How so?  When the test originally took place, there were some who thought it was a case of one part of the Chinese government not communicating with the other – surely a "responsible" space-faring nation wouldn’t have allowed such a test to take place knowing the importance unhindered access to space and in particular, low Earth orbit has to the global economy.  Under this scenario the military "got out of the box" so to speak and conducted the hazardous experiment without the civilian government’s full understanding of the implications of the test.  Not so.

Let’s step back for a minute and take another look at the test itself and what it entails and implies about the state of China’s program and what that in turn, could signal to the world in general and the US, in particular.

The test was a direct ascent, hit-to-kill intercept.    That is in contrast to the generic Cold War-era Soviet ASAT scenario which was usually a two or three orbit intecept. The latter took longer but was easier from a command and control aspect for managing the intercept.  Time was not the critical factor that it is in a direct ascent intercept.  A direct ascent intercept requires precise tracking, coordination and control – knowing and tracking the target and working out the intercept geometry for the intercept, all based on advanced sensors, tracking and precise trajectory controls.  Where have we seen that capabiltiy demonstrated before?  Only by the US and Russia.  The fact that this was a head on intercept means extraordinarily high closure speeds were generated.  (To gain a sense of those speeds, head over to the Missile Defense Agency’s website and watch the tracking film of the GBI intercept for FTG-03a)  The target for the ASAT was an out of commission weather satellite – a fairly high density object (IOW – not a designed test object).  That was one of the contributing factors to the high debris quantity.  If a low density target had been used, the debris field could have been substantially reduced, but other artificialities would have been introduced into the scenario.

Given the degree of sophistication to develop, model, test and simulate a direct ascent/head-on ASAT attack, the magnitude of the debris field had to have been understood by leadership – political and miltary, prior to the test.  They had to have known and assessed the impact it would have to other nations using LEO and made their decision accordingly.  And that is why the test is important – not just for the capability it demonstrated, but for the implied thought process that preceded and approved the shot.  For in so doing, the Chinese were sending a message to the US that in a future crisis, as important as space might be to both nations, they recognized it was of greater importance to the US and were willing to execute a course of action that while it would degrade or deny some aspects of space access to themselves, would have a significantly greater, if not prevailing  impact on  the US and other nations.   

Clearly a shooting war in space with the US will be costly to China – but they have evidently made the calculation and set the bar at some level that in a future crisis – whether it be over Taiwan or in some other matter that is critical to China, they would be willing to pull the trigger.  Absent a US counter, short of prompt strike against launch preparations which itself has an escalatory nature, the US may be faced with few choices but escalation or backing down.  Actions policymakers should be taking now include ensuring on-orbit redundancy for critical assets, rapid reconstitution of critical capabilities (e.g., ability to rapidly launch a "lesser featured" satellite to fill a critical gap for a shorter duration until replacement is available), and hardening of satellites to debris and attack. Boost phase intercept of ASAT-interceptors is another capabiltiy that may be available, at least in an emergency or limited defense option, within a couple of years.  

Other fallout from the test comes in the form of Aviation Week & Space Technology following Time magazine’s meme of heaping accolades on those supported by (or leading) despotic regimes in 2007, by naming China’s Qian Xuesen as its 2007 Person of the Year.  Citing the ASAT test as well as the Chang’e Lunar probe and earlier accomplishments of the Chinese space program (the Long March series of space launchers for example) of which he was head administrator for a number of years,  AW&ST cites his influence for bringing China to its current position of influence and prestige among the space faring nations.  We personally would have preferred the crew of the ISS and STS-120 as well as all those in support roles on the ground for this feat demonstrating the worth of man in space instead.

So what’s next for the Chinese space program?  More manned flights to be sure including a moonshot by 2015-2020. Further development and refinement of their rocket program – commercial and military, definitely.  And this curious item which appeared on a Chinese military blog last month:

Say "hello" to the ‘Shenlong’ or Divine Dragon and what may be China’s attempt at a hypersonic spaceplane.  We’ll cover that in Part II later this week…

“…that may have been a small one for Neil…”

November 19th, 1969:

115:22:16 Conrad: (As he lands) Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me. (Pause)

    [Jones – "I understand that there was a bet on your saying that."]     [Bean – "Who’d you bet?"]     [Conrad – "You know who I bet."]     [Bean – "Nope. I forget."]     [Conrad – "A reporter, who thought the government put words in our mouths."]     [Bean – "Oh!"]     [Conrad – (Laughing) "I also had $500 riding on it, but I never got paid."]     [Bean – (Laughing) "I didn’t know that! Is that right? I kind of remember it, a little. Oh, well."]     [Jones – "Do you want that story as part of the record?"]     [Bean – "Put it in. It will be good for the myth. We’re trying to create a Conrad Myth. Big Bucks on this. Can’t have too many human interest things."]     [Conrad – "I tell the story, but I don’t tell who I bet."]     [Actually, Pete does occasionally reveal that the reporter was Oriana Fallaci. A more detailed version of the story can be found in Andrew Chaikin’s "A Man on the Moon".]
(Note: The Apollo12 crew may have been one of the most animated and fun group to listen to.
Listen to it all here. They were a riot to listen to in person later on the lecture circuit when I went to listen at the University of Nebraska and met Pete Conrad in person.  I also cracked him up big time when I asked that he sign the cast on my wrist, broken the previous week, as he noted it was the first cast he’d been asked to sign… Unfortunately we lost Pete in a motorcycle accident 30 years later on 9 July 1999. – SJS)

The old (Surveyor III w/Pete Conrad) and the new (LM "Intrepid" in the distance)