February 23, 2008 By Dan Nakaso, Advertiser Staff Writer
The guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie pulled into Pearl Harbor yesterday with scorch marks where a modified $9.5 million missile flew from one of its forward hatches on Wednesday and destroyed a doomed U.S. spy satellite orbiting in space.
The Lake Erie's commander, Capt. Randall M. Hendrickson, may leave the now-famous "forward module 5, cell 4" unpainted for a few weeks, first, as a reminder of a mission that generated news around the planet, but also "just to make us feel good," Hendrickson said yesterday after tying up at Mike Pier 1 and 2.
The Lake Erie had been running drills for the past six weeks to destroy the satellite as it flew 133 miles above the ocean at more than 17,000 mph.
When the ship's 360 officers and crew went to sea again on Valentine's Day, Ensign Josh Larson told his wife, Molly, "Honey, I'm leaving. Can't say why. We'll be back sometime," she said yesterday, waiting for the Lake Erie to dock.
Finally, on Wednesday, Hendrickson received orders from the U.S. secretary of defense to "release the weapon" and a video camera aboard the 55-pound, 10-inch diameter warhead showed a direct hit to the satellite's fuel tank, said Adm. Brad Hicks, program manager for Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense.
"It wasn't enough just to hit it," Hicks said. "We had to assess whether we got an impact on the fuel tank. That was the whole mission."
The satellite never worked properly after it was launched in 2006 and settled into orbit with no power and no central computer.
The 5,000-pound satellite was expected to crash to Earth in early March with a full load of toxic hydrazine fuel in a tank the size of a Chevrolet Suburban, Hicks said.
"The rest of the satellite would have burned off," he said. "But the tank would have likely survived re-entry and hit the ground. This was a mission that had to be accomplished so there wouldn't be a risk to people on the ground if it came down with that fuel tank intact."
Theories continue to race around the world that the U.S. military was trying to send a message to foreign powers, Hicks said.
"There was no underlying political message," he said. "Frankly, if there hadn't been the hydrazine on board, we wouldn't have done this. We would have let it have a natural re-entry."
Hicks estimated the operation's cost at $100 million.
It involved hundreds of civilian and military personnel from the USS Lake Erie to Pacific Command in Makalapa to North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado to Strategic Command in Nebraska to the Pentagon.
The Lake Erie and its systems are designed to shoot down ballistic missiles — "that air-breathing threat coming in," Hendrickson said. Not satellites orbiting Earth at "an incredible speed and an incredible attitude."
Although defense officials had until early March, Hicks said, they wanted enough time before the satellite began scraping Earth's atmosphere, which would cause it to wobble in orbit and make it harder to pinpoint.
"With its solar panels, it wouldn't be aerodynamic and you would start getting what we call drag off of the Earth's atmosphere," Hicks said.
He also wanted enough time to recalibrate for another attempt — just in case the Lake Erie missed on its first try.
Instead, Lt. Cmdr. Drew Bates, 33, of Indianapolis, the Lake Erie's tactical officer, led the team that launched the missile and made a direct hit.
Pressed by reporters yesterday to describe the feel of pushing the "button" that launched the missile, Bates said, "I shy away from that question. There's so much that goes into it before the button is pushed."
Seconds after launch, Bates barely got to see the impact from the missile's video camera in the Lake Erie's command information center.
While others cheered and clapped, "I just caught it out of the corner of my eye," he said. "We still had to look at the system and bring it down from its firing condition to a safe condition. ... But when the captain announced we had a successful mission, throughout the ship there was a big sigh of relief."