“Spinning” falling satellites

The recent announcements of the United State’s intention to destroy a defective spy satellite before it falls out of orbit and into the earth’s atmosphere because it may pose a risk of “possible contamination from the hazardous rocket fuel on board” set off the warning bell in my baloney detection kit virtually instantly.

Although I’m no expert on rocket technology and apparently hydrazine fuel (the type of fuel used in the satellite) can be toxic in uncontrolled situations, the chances of it causing any significant harm after re-entering the atmosphere is probably virtually nil.

The US government apparently seems to feel that saying this is a (re)test of our capacity to shoot down satellites (we’ve already done this way back in 1985), and that they’d prefer that any bits and chunks that may make it to the ground not fall into the hands of any unsavory people aren’t acceptable reasons in and of themselves. So instead they’re pushing first on the “create fear” button: “If not we’re all going to die in horrible toxic agony!”, while at the same time subliminally reminding everybody that the Chinese have recently gained the ability to shoot down satellites too. Eeevil bad Chinese! Danger! There out to get us, like everybody!

That’s called “spin”.

What’s weird to me is why? I think the American people, and why not Governments around the world, would have accepted perfectly well the first two, and more legitimate, reasons for destroying the satellite while it’s still in orbit. They could have then put the fuel risk in it’s legitimate third-place position: “And also by doing this, we’ll eliminate a very small health risk by assuring the destruction of the hydrazine fuel”.

These two ways of lining up the reasons for blowing up the satellite both communicate the same information and even the same political innuendos. However one of them is relatively honest and the other, the one chosen by our leaders, is squarely manipulative.

But coming from this administration, is that really surprising?

Further reading:

Experts Scoff at Sat Shoot-Down Rationale at the Wired Danger Room
Why the spy satellite won’t fall on your head from BBC news.

Added 17 Febuary 2008:
Missile Defense Future May Turn on Success of Mission to Destroy Satellite at the New York Times

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