After a getting multiple e-mails about my quotes in Global Security Newswire and the New York Times, let me make my advice to the Bush Administration, who decided to shoot down USA 193, explicit: DON’T FREAKING DO IT.
This is bad policymaking. Take this explanation of the rationale for the decision to intercept the falling satellite:
At the end of this, just from my perspective, what to me was compelling as we reviewed the data is that if we fire at the satellite, the worst is that we miss, and then we have a known situation, which is where we are today.
This logic — “hey, why not?” — is always suspect. It reverses the burden of proof, placing the emphasis on those who oppose the intercept.
Yet, this is an “extraordinary” measure (General Cartwright’s phrase) against a “small” risk (his phrase again). Justifying it requires demonstrating not just that one risk is greater than another, but that we have high confidence that estimates of the risks are accurate and complete.
Holding aside my general worry that this Administration is not to be trusted with sharp objects, there are specific reasons to be skeptical of both the accuracy and the completeness of this Administration’s calculations. I strongly suspect that they are systematically discounting two types of hard-to-quantify risks — the possibility of error within the estimates and the political costs to conducting an anti-satellite intercept.
Worst Case Scenarios
The Administration, according to General Cartwright, compared the “worst downside” of intercepting. But read carefully, and the “wost” case appears to be that they miss — not that they are wrong about the debris estimates or how much debris would reenter with a successful intercept.
The real worst case is that they are wrong about those risks. Yet the possibility of that error is difficult to capture in models.
On the other hand, the Administration did consider the worst case for hydrazine: that the tank remains in tact, that it comes down in a populated area, that people don’t evacuate:
The worst scenario is that you have a person who either is not mobile or does not, for whatever reason, sense that they’re in danger, and therefore doesn’t take any action. But those variables are very difficult to put minutes or time to.
The comparison here is apples-to-oranges: worst case on the human health risks, median-case on the debris risk. The deck is stacked.
The Hydrazine Story
Yet, there are reasons to wonder whether we know, or are simply concerned, that the hydrazine tank will remain intact. Administrator Griffin indicated that the “analysis that we’ve done is as certain as any analysis of this type can be” that the tank “will survive intact” and the “hydrazine will vent.”
Well, one might ask how certain can one be in this business? “I mean, one can never be certain,” Griffin said elsewhere.
It is worth noting that, on January 30, 2008, General Gene Reneurt, Commander of NORTHCOM, discounted the risk from the hydrazine.
The satellite includes some small engines that contain a toxic chemical called hydrazine which is rocket fuel. But Renuart said they are not large booster engines with substantial amounts of fuel.
Guess he didn’t get the talking points.
The idea that the hydrazine might survive apparently comes largely from the experience of the Columbia. That experience featured heavily in the presentation by Jeffrey, Cartwright and Griffin, as well as a story by Craig Covault indicating that data from the Columbia “are now being used operationally for the first time by Pentagon, NASA and NRO analysts to calculate better how much debris will survive…”
Whatever the probability that the hydrazine will survive and vent, it is less than 1. That probability must then be discounted by the probability that the tank will land near enough a person (let alone an immobile one) to cause human harm.
What About the Debris Risk?
We’ve had a great discussion in the comments about the risk from debris. Simple models suggests a very large amount of debris, much of which comes down within a few orbits.
We’ve seen, however, that the NASA model pretty seriously underestimated the amount of debris created by the Chinese ASAT intercept. Most of the debris will be very short lived, but the risk to space assets may be higher, at least in the very short term, than NASA imagines.
Those risks are not negligible — Administrator Griffin stated that “risks to shuttle and station … are at least a factor of 10 smaller than risks we take just being in space anyway…”
That, to my mind, is strange way of looking at the problem — we take many risks to be in space. Yet astronauts chose those risks freely for their own reasons. The folks sitting on the space station — and to a lesser extent those who have paid for it — are do not have a choice about the risk they will now incur.
We haven’t seen hard numbers yet, but my suspicion — and it is just a suspicion — is that the expected risk to the ISS crew will be surprisingly competitive with the expected risk to persons on the ground even without considering the possibility that our debris estimates might be low.
Of course, that’s because they both round to zero.
The Politics of this Suck
I don’t know how to express the political risk. Not knowing the risk, however, is different from it being “zero” — which is how the Bush Administration, at best, seems to count it. At worst, some members seem to assign a positive value to conducting an ASAT test.
The Chinese will use this to excuse their January 2007 test and, perhaps, future ones. The Russians seem interested in playing along, too. I’d like to be able to argue that they’re wrong; That this is different.
I have argued, in the past, that we have a strong interest in constraining the development of debris-creating anti-satellite weapons. Sadly, our intercept will make that outcome harder to achieve, not easier.
Given the extremely small risk to people on the ground, as well as the three people in orbit, these risks — though difficult to quantify — almost certainly should dominate the discussion.
But what loser is going to go to bat for confidence building measures in outer space when there is a giant tank of hydrazine bearing down on a Cub Scout Jamboree and one really awesome, heroic chance to blow it out of the sky? Hell, I bet the thing explodes into fireworks with red, white and blue stars and streamers like over the Mall on the Fourth of July.
Let’s face it, supporting the shot is the “safe” thing to do. After all, the debris risk will probably work out ok, while we’ll never know if the satellite would have hit a populated area. The cost, in terms of space security, is so difficult to identify, that one can simply explain it away with facile counterfactuals. “Oh, the Russian’s were just looking for an excuse, they would have done it anyway.”
Can Cowboys Do Math?
But the safe decision isn’t always the wise one. My sense on this was captured by my friend Jonathan McDowell, who called the decision regrettable and, in a moment of frustration, added:
Clearly someone in the administration who has the instincts of a cowboy has decided this is the perfect excuse to rattle our sabres and show the Chinese that we have the same capabilities.
Of course, Jonathan could be all wrong. The way for the Bush Administration to dispel his skepticism, and mine, would be to publish the risk estimates — both of the debris risk to the ISS and the hydrazine risk to the population on the ground.
Let independent observers check the homework.