Washington — Long before the public learned in late January that a damaged U.S. spy satellite carrying toxic fuel was going to crash to Earth, the government secretly assembled a high-powered team of officials and scientists to study the feasibility of shooting it down with a missile.
The order to launch the crash program came Jan. 4, according to defense officials who described Friday how it came to fruition for a final go-ahead decision by President Bush this week. The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition they not be identified because of the sensitivity of the work.
The initial order was twofold: Assess whether shooting down the satellite with a missile was even possible, and at the same time urgently piece together the technological tools it would take to succeed.
In a matter of weeks, three Navy warships - the USS Lake Erie, USS Decatur and USS Russell - were outfitted with modified Aegis anti-missile systems, the ships' crews were trained for an unprecedented mission, and three SM-3 missiles were pulled off an assembly line and given a new guidance system.
The decision to attempt a shootdown was disclosed by the Pentagon on Thursday. On Friday officials said it could happen next week, shortly after the space shuttle Atlantis returns from its current voyage at midweek. Officials want the Atlantis to be home to avoid the risk of being hit with satellite debris.
With an eye to the possibility that the missile effort will fail, the government has placed six rescue teams across the country to be prepared to act if the satellite hits the United States, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency memo dated Feb. 14 and obtained by The Associated Press.
Publicly, officials have expressed confidence that they will succeed in the intercept. Privately, some say there is a rising sense of anxiety, although the consequences of failure are not what they would be in war; if the missile misses, the bus-sized satellite will tumble to Earth on its own, with very small odds that the on-board tank of hydrazine - a toxic fuel - will harm any humans.