By Dave Ahearn

The Navy Wednesday night obliterated a nonfunctional intelligence satellite using the Lockheed Martin [LMT] Aegis weapon control system and a Raytheon [RTN] Standard Missile-3 fired from a Navy ballistic missile defense (BMD) cruiser, the USS Lake Erie (CG-70).

That SM-3 interceptor scored a direct hit on the satellite, and more importantly it likely demolished a tank filled with 1,000 pounds of dangerous hydrazine propellant fuel.

President Bush–fearing that the failed satellite would tumble out of control when it hit the atmosphere and possibly land in a populated area, spewing out hydrazine on unsuspecting citizens somewhere–ordered the satellite destroyed in orbit.

While Department of Defense officials were certain that the SM-3 scored a solid hit on the satellite, they said it would be hours or days before they could be positive that the fuel tank was destroyed.

However, they said the tank likely was demolished, because after the strike, radar and other sensors scanning for debris remains of the satellite found nothing larger than a football.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates personally ordered the shootdown.

At about 1:40 p.m. ET Wednesday, while en route to Hawaii from Washington, Gates held a conference call with Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command. They told Gates conditions were ripe for an attempt. Gates authorized the shootdown.

At about 10:26 p.m. ET, the Lake Erie, fired a single modified tactical Standard Missile-3, hitting the satellite about 133 nautical miles over the Pacific Ocean as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph

At 10:35 p.m. ET, the generals called Gates to report the shootdown was a success.

Critics questioned whether the SM-3 shot, demolishing the satellite, would shatter it into an enormous number of pieces of dangerous space debris traveling at thousands of miles an hour, posing a risk to satellites and spacecraft.

But Pentagon officials said the errant satellite was in an orbit so low, just above the atmosphere, that the space debris would disappear quickly.

Because of the relatively low altitude of the satellite at the time of the engagement, debris would have started re-entering the earth’s atmosphere immediately, officials said, and nearly all of the debris will burn up on re-entry within two days.

Should any large pieces of the satellite’s debris make it to Earth, special teams are on alert and positioned within the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of the Pacific Command, said.

The teams are there “to lend assistance should parts of the satellite survive the missile impact and hit,” he said. “We don’t think the hydrazine container is going to hit. That’s why we’re shooting at it. But if it does, we’re prepared to assist with specially trained teams that are on alert at various places throughout our area of responsibility.”

The agency is developing a multi-layered ballistic missile shield just as North Korea is building nuclear weapons and attempting to develop a long-range Taepo Dong-2 missile; Iran is producing nuclear materials and is acquiring progressively longer-range missiles; and China has 1,300-plus missiles aimed at Taiwan and is developing mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 5,000-mile range missiles on submarines, capable of striking targets throughout the United States.

Pentagon leaders denied that there was any motive in the missile shootdown aside from a public-safety desire to prevent harm to people on the ground if the tank landed near them and they breathed in hydrazine fumes.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the shoot-down does not threaten any country and is not a new space race with any country.

He stressed that the satellite shootdown was possible only after substantial modifications to the Aegis/SM-3 system.

The Standard Missile 3 had to be modified to fly the mission at all, and it would be used only in this kind of emergency response to similar potential dangers, Mullen stated.

Separately, a key House lawmaker said the shootdown, while successful, shouldn’t become a commonplace for the U.S. military.

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Congress will watch this area closely.

On the one hand, “Our forces and technical experts are to be commended for destroying this malfunctioning satellite before it posed any threat to people on the ground, Skelton said.

However, he added, “This was an exceptional case, and I reiterate that this action should not be construed as standard U.S. policy for dealing with problem satellites.”

After anti-satellite shots by the United States in the 1980s, the practice was halted, he recalled. “We abandoned the pursuit of anti-satellite technology two decades ago due to concerns about the consequences of its use, and our country has no plans to renew those efforts. Congress will closely monitor U.S. policies concerning our space assets in the coming days.”

But Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz), a member of the committee, said the shot not only protected innocent civilians from harm, it also showed how competent the U.S. ballistic missile shield has become, that a completely innovative attempt such as the satellite downing could be done on the first try, with one interceptor.