OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. – More than two dozen federal agencies collaborated to shoot down a non-functional National Reconnaissance Office satellite Feb. 20, or to contend with the potential consequences of the satellite that was set to reenter the Earth's atmosphere in early March.
The satellite was carrying a tank of 1,000 pounds of hydrazine fuel that analysts determined could be a threat to human life. With this information, the U.S. Department of Defense and other agencies came together to find the best course of action.
The Global Operations Directorate (J3) for U.S. Strategic Command led the planning and coordination of efforts between the Missile Defense Agency, the NRO, NASA and the Pacific Command, and did so in less than 60 days, culminating in the successful engagement of a derelict satellite.
"To think we could coordinate all details across 7,000 miles and make it look seamless is pretty amazing to think about," said Rear Admiral Doug L. McClain, Director of Global Operations for USSTRATCOM.
Many people in the Global Operations Directorate and throughout the supporting agencies and units worked hard to ensure a successful mission. Colonel Michael J. Carey, Deputy Director of Global Operations for the command commented that, "the talented people in J3 worked day and night in a remarkable feat that speaks to the ingenuity and teamwork of some great Americans. "
"It was no doubt a challenge in the early stages," said Army Lt. Col. Chad Jones, Chief of Joint Training for U.S. Strategic Command. "There was a lot of discovery learning, as we pulled experts together from across the communities to execute an operation that was never done before. "
USSTRATCOM along with Pacific Command, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, NASA, Missile Defense Agency, and the NRO, to name just a few, worked tirelessly around the clock to determine the best possibility of mission success.
"Simulations and scenarios were run over and over again, each time getting closer to reaching the intent of the commander, who made the final decision," Jones said.
Concurrently, operational security was a top priority to ensure the data being gathered would not be used by adversaries.
"Intelligence experts, for weeks gathered information to see if there was any adversarial awareness of the event and how that may play in the decision process for leadership," said LCDR Steve Fahey, Chief of Space Intelligence Analysis for USSTRATCOM.
Although the mission, code named Operation Burnt Frost, is complete, intelligence is still being gathered to ensure national security and safety.
Along with intelligence concerns, there are political factors from the President's decision to intercept the satellite.
"On the one hand we had humanitarian implications, on the other hand we had technical implications, but the nature of the event also dealt with the field of diplomacy and international politics," said Mr. Kirk Augustine, Political Advisor for USSTRATCOM. "The action that the U.S. has taken complicates our diplomacy, but we had a significant amount of international support in the approach, and while it may not have been overwhelming support, there were many countries that agreed with us. "
With the agencies pulling together to carry out the mission, all aspects were considered.
Due to the relative low altitude of the engagement, approximately 130 miles, nearly all the debris has already entered the Earth's atmosphere. The remaining debris is expected to reenter within 40 days and should not affect any orbiting space systems, according to U.S. space analysts.
"The U.S. is committed to safe and responsible space operations," said Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, Commander of USSTRATCOM. "This includes taking responsibility for our falling debris and doing everything possible to mitigate its impact for this engagement. "
The extraordinary efforts across the U.S. Government made it possible for Operation Burnt Frost's success. A satellite that may have caused harm to human life is no longer a threat and there are many agencies responsible for the outcome.
"The success of this unprecedented effort is due to the expertise, talent, hard work and tireless efforts of many people, all working together to reduce risks to people all over the world," said Chilton. "I could not be prouder of the team. It could not have been done any better. "