Sunday, February 17, 2008

Star Wars .01 – Darth Cheney’s Revenge

What comes up must come down. Even some expertly-placed satellites fall victim to the laws of physics eventually and find themselves doomed to the vagaries of atmospheric drag. The bigger ones can cause trouble. In 1979, the world watched and worried as the giant Skylab experimental space station lost its mojo and dropped out of orbit, eventually landing harmlessly in the Indian Ocean. In 1977, a Soviet spy satellite spun out of control, complete with an on-board compact nuclear reactor, landing in the Canadian Arctic and scaring the heck out of some amateur adventurers (with cold CIA agents in hot pursuit). Orbiting man-made objects, large and small, burn up in the atmosphere frequently. It’s a cost of doing orbital business.

It used to be that the governments responsible for falling space junk would simply watch, worry and warn, with only slightly more credibility than Chicken Little. But that was before the radical Bush administration decided to take charge of the laws of gravity. A U.S. spy satellite that failed as soon as it was launched a little over a year ago is coming home, uninvited. As always for the Cardboard Cowboy from Texas, it’s shoot now and ask questions later. The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight has decided to shoot a rocket into space to destroy the damn thing.

According to the military – an always-important caveat – the satellite, rigidly identified as USA 193, presents more danger than just the usual metal rain and craters that attend these sort of events. They expect that about 1,000 pounds of a propellant containing hydrazine would survive reentry and all sorts of skin rashes and difficult breathing for those who might come in contact with it would result (from this entry on something called ToxFAQs, it doesn’t seem that bad). I mean, it’s not like it’s plutonium or some of the other stuff they cavalierly send up to float around in the heavens on a regular basis. Considering the fact that the thing has at least a 70% chance of landing in water, what’s the big deal?

Ah, but, like circling vultures, the Bushies thrive – still – on the opportunities presented by tragedy and failure. Why let it fall to the earth on its own? Let’s crank up the machinery and SHOOT IT DOWN!! We get to advance the wacky Star Wars (SDI) agenda and technology, take a giant leap in the militarization of space and get the jump on any other country that thinks it might go head-to-head with us in space shoot-‘em-ups. One more perpetual project by the military industrial complex that the next president will have to try to shut down. Cue Mister Burns: Exxxcellent...

The chance to take a free shot at the dead satellite was obviously too much for the inventive war mongers of the administration to pass up. When China did the same thing to one of their own satellites a year ago, the U.S. got all huffy about how the exercise was "inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation between the two countries". The planned U.S. shoot-down also flies in the face of international conventions (such as the Outer Space Treaty) and serious concerns about the militarization of space. But, as we all know all too well, the Bushies consider internal consistency and international law for suckers. This presents a whole ‘nuther area for this band of rogues to undermine America’s moral authority in the world – hey, time is running out!

The continued development and perfection of anti-satellite weapon technology has all kinds of implications for the future -- all of them bad. If a satellite can be intercepted with a ballistic missile, why not by a fellow warrior satellite? Maybe we should outfit the space shuttle with "defensive" machine guns on the wings – I mean, you never can be too careful. Do we know where all the communication satellites are for China and Russia? Do they know where ours are? See, that’s the thing about opening this deadly door – after we do it, anyone can. It won’t be too long before we’ll be worrying less about dirty bombs on land than terrorist attacks on decadent DirectTV orbiters. Talk about getting us where we live.

Dig these quaint principles from the Outer Space Treaty, signed by the United States in 1967:

  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
  • the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;
  • astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;
  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental activities;
  • States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

It’s all so Kumbaya, isn’t it?

Scene: Darth Cheney is led to the balcony of his lair at his undisclosed location. He sees the star-like satellite streaking across the sky in low orbit (you can see it, too). Raising a gold silk bandana in his right hand, he nods to his minions; they indicate their readiness. A military drummer rolls on his snare. The cloth falls from his hand and hits the red carpet just as the rocket finds its target, exploding like white fireworks, a trail of permanent space debris trailing from the site of the blast.

Darth Cheney allows himself a thin smile. Exxxcellent...

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