Wednesday, February 20, 2008


The Drunken Old Guy’s Mind Isn’t Really on the Wine...

...Is the Pentagon Really Worried About the Hydrazine?

So asks the Chinese Internet in the matter of Satellite USA 193.

America’s announced plans to shoot down a malfunctioning spy satellite this week has elicited an avalanche of commentary and snark from China.

By Google’s count, there are 24,300 hits for the Chinese-language search string, “The drunken old guy’s mind isn’t really on wine + U.S. satellite.”

That is either a sign of the celerity of the China blogosphere’s hive mind or an indication of how quickly a meme can spread when the government controls the Internet, or both.

I think official Chinese concerns boil down to four elements:

1. Asserting China’s qualifications as a space power on par with Russia and the United States.
2. Imputing hidden motives to the US for conducting the operation
3. Expressing resentment that the US did a better PR job than the Chinese did with their test
4. Hoping that the US will screw up.

The Chinese desire to be regarded as space peers and not just irritating kibitzers is evident in a news report that the United States will call on fellow space powers Russia and China for assistance in tracking the hulk if the shootdown fails.

The Chinese papers are filled with home grown wonkery and analysis in addition to translations from the Western media, seemingly intended to assert that the PRC is a fully paid-up and high-performing member of the space club.

One piece offered the observation that the speed, infrared signature, trajectory, and available window weren’t suitable to the test of an anti-missile missile so by default it could be considered a subset of an anti-satellite test.

Another article advised that the altitude of the operation and the time window available for the shot would give a good idea of the intentions behind the test.

Indeed, the Chinese were quick to look beyond the Pentagon’s solicitude for the people of earth threatened by a none-too-catastrophic barrage of hydrazine.

The expression, “The drunken old man’s mind isn’t really on the wine” is taken from a poem by the Song literatus Ouyang Xiu.

In the poem the drinker’s mind is on the landscape, but the meaning of the phrase has evolved to express suspicion of ulterior motives.

And the Chinese are perfectly willing to ascribe ulterior motives to the US test, from destroying sensitive technology to testing anti-missile and anti-satellite systems to intimidating the Chinese and the Russians.

By questioning the Pentagon’s narrative, the Chinese want to undercut America’s pretensions to responsible and honest space power-hood that it has claimed with its prior notification and the relative transparency surrounding the planned shootdown.

(And I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. media campaign was carefully designed to draw invidious comparisons between Chicom secrecy and recklessness and America’s careful stewardship of its space turf.)

There is also barely suppressed hope in China that the United States will screw up, either by missing the satellite or creating an embarrassing shower of wreckage, so that the Chinese, still smarting from the PR debacle of their own ASAT test, can savor the sweet, sweet taste of schadenfreud.

I find it rather ironic that the public US disarmament community is also unable to divine the actual motives for the U.S. shootdown.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that there is still dispute over why the Chinese knocked down their satellite.

America’s continued desire to treat its pre-eminence in space as beyond challenge or discussion is well illustrated by the shootdown of USA 193—a unilateral piece of public-safety policing by the world’s self-appointed space sheriff.

It reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s invocation of Star Wars as humanity’s shield against invading aliens and angry asteroids.

China’s awareness of America’s strategic dominance in space, its desire to be treated as an equal in space—and its desire to have both its role and the American presence in space the subject of peer-to-peer negotiation--should not be dismissed as a motivation for its test.

And yes, America’s rejection out of hand of the Russian and Chinese initiative at the UN disarmament conference last week to ban space weapons does seem to be on China’s mind.

And now for something completely different:

The Internet, being a wonderful place, has an fascinating page of recollections by ex Air Force captain Gregory Karambelas and his collaborator, Sven Grahn, concerning America’s ASAT program in the 1980s.

At that time, our weapon of choice, the Miniature Homing Vehicle interceptor, was a modified anti-tank armament fired from an F-15. According to Karambelas, it was a rather kloogy device, with a primitive IR sensor that had to be cooled down to 4 degrees Kelvin using liquid helium provided both from the back seat of the jet and an on-board tank after the missile was in flight.

Getting a good IR signature seems to be a common theme in the space weapon business.

Test shots were scheduled for times when the target had been heated up by the sun, and considerable effort was expended trying to develop fuels that would not befuddle the primitive sensor by clouding the area around the interceptor with IR contaminants.

In December 1985, Major Doug Pearson became the world’s only space ace, piloting his jet to 38,100 feet, pulling up to a climb angle of 65 degrees, firing the MVI, and destroying an obsolete scientific satellite, Solwind P78-1, 345 miles above the Pacific.

There were, of course, plans for further tests and two target satellites a.k.a. Instrumented Target Vehicles (with sensors to detect both direct hits and near misses) were launched. They were supposed to inflate like giant beach balls (six feet across), and heated using hydrazine (there’s that word again) to provide a controllable infrared signature.

However, the ban on ASAT tests kicked in and the ITVs orbited, lonely and unused, for the next few years until their orbits decayed and they fell to earth.

For those interested in the history and technology of space activities, I recommend a visit to Sven Grahn’s website, Sven’s Space Place .

Dr. Grahn works in the Swedish satellite program and was one of the first foreigners to witness a Chinese satellite launch, in 1988 at Jiuquan.

His site includes articles on his career in aerospace, coverage of the Chinese and Russian space programs, interesting historical sidebars like the F15 ASAT story (profusely illustrated with cutaways of the MVH and ITV, orbital data, and etc.), and disturbing what-ifs—like the Soviet plan to explode an atomic bomb on the moon in a propaganda demonstration to the citizens of planet Earth of all that was cool and wonderful about the USSR’s space and technology programs.

In other words, something like our ASAT operation.


Mekhong Kurt said...

I'm American, but I've lived for many years in Asia, including a total of eight in mainland China and Macau, so I do have some perspective on both sides, despite living in Thailand for some years now, so away from day-to-day street intelligence on the ground in China.

As an American, I'm willing to accept that at least one reason for the shoot-down was safety. As an internationalist, it seems a glimpse of the blindingly obvious that it let U.S. officials have another demonstration of the country having an ability to shoot down objects in space, even if no new technology was involved. Including, presumably, incoming missiles.

There is one crucial difference -- if the Americans were honest in expressions of safety concerns -- between the Chinese and U.S. shoot-downs. The Chinese never even claimed the satellite they shot down posed any threat, and paid a heavy PR penalty. The Americans did express something that was of real, if statistically improbable, concern -- even if that was merely a cover.

China is not yet a major space power; it's more on par with Japan in that regard. But it's developing its abilities rapidly, so their program merits watching, and I mean in the positive sense, not merely a spy master's way of thinking.

Mekhong Kurt
Bangkok, Thailand

MADEAGLE said...

As American I must say I don't trust China. They are not our friends and neither is Russia. I believe the shoot down was a clear warning to both governments.
It is clear to me that both China and Russia want the US to fall.
I do see the blance of power shifting towards China and that worries me the most.
I believe we should get the hell out of Iraq and Afgan, and focus more on bring down China and Russia.
Why? Well its clear to me; that is what has been going on with those two countries. They are focused on bring America down through the economic alliance and the increase in military build up that China has been doing now Russia buliding its airforce again. All this really worries me. China has no enemies but then it countinues to build its navy.
I say in the near future China and Russia plan on taking over all of Asia. China wants Taiwan and Russia wants the Balkans. If China get a stronger navy and the Russians better Airforce the US will be unable to stop them unless we use nukes. Then of course the END OF DAYS.
Either way everyone is screwed if Russia and CHINA aren't checked soon.

hajime said...

American government are a bunch of lying krooks, missiles, haha, missiles and nukes are obsolete to the US and yet people talk about this and that, they have lasers in space, i think you should be more worried about the illegal weaponization of space by the US military who could get all of earth involved in some intergalactic warfare.

hajime said...

American government are a bunch of lying krooks, missiles, haha, missiles and nukes are obsolete to the US and yet people talk about this and that, they have lasers in space, i think you should be more worried about the illegal weaponization of space by the US military who could get all of earth involved in some intergalactic warfare.

Unknown said...

What is amazing to me is that no one has mentioned one of the real concerns about these spy satellites of which that many are powered by a miniture Plutonium power reactor, designed to run for several years, and it's consequences of likely survival of re-entry through the atmosphere.. the shoot down at least controls some choice to an ocean entry, rather than "land, someplace"... and additionally, no one has mentioned that fact that every Space Shuttle landing occurs with at least 1000 lbs. of hydrazine fuel aboard, used to control attitude and position control rockets on the STS, including the Columbia which burned up, and survived reentry in pieces.... where were all the articles and warnings about the Hydrazine fuel hazard then? a bit of a ruse, it seems, this latest "shoot down", to justify ( and scare) in the public's mind the exercise, while avoiding the real issue of Plutonium pieces / chunks raining in from the sky... great material for terrorist dirty bomb, or even a fission weapon...
Lord Oc2

DisgustedandAmused said...

I can't see why there has to be any question of ulterior motives. Good Lord, any competent politician or government official (including military officers) should be capable of realizing that every public move will be percieved politically by the rest of the world (as both of these events were), so planning for any such public action might as well be planned with that in mind. That includes the public explanation for the action.
The facts are that any action in space obviously has connotations for military aerospace abilities and positioning -- whether they are intended by the actor is irrelevant. And since every government space agency has military connections or is military itself, everywhere on the planet, those military aerospace implications will, at the least, be noted for future reference. It would be irresponsible of any military command in this field to ignore those implications -- even if there were no such intentions. That's probably part of "Space 101" classes in every country's war colleges.

As for Russia and China's growing capabilities, it's about time the US got used to the idea of the rest of the world getting up to speed with us in general -- technologically, economically, militarily. There is really no way for us to keep everyone else down, and I wouldn't want us to anyway. If anything, I'd rather live in a world where Russia, China, and every other major world region was capable of supporting itself at economic levels even better than the current US status. Seeing them develop a comparable military capability, at least for self-defense, will be an inevitable part of that. (It would be better for all of us in the long run to see all the current and future great powers develop sustainable and efficient technologies that will make our current obsessions with securing access to "overseas" resources obsolete. That would give all of us greater security that all the arms races, colonial shennanigans, and wars have ever accomplished.)

As for whether the concerns expressed about hydrazine are legit: I think they are. When the Space Shuttle came down over Texas, people in the crash area were warned to not touch the debris, but simply tag it's position and call NASA. Hydrazine contamination was only one of the hazardous substances mentioned as a good reason to stay away from the crash debris.

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