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Science shot down.

Remember P78-1? It's unlikely that you do. Once, it was just another satellite hurtling through the increasingly cluttered void. Its mission was abstruse and purely scientific. It collected and transmitted to earth data on solar disturbances and their effects on electronic communications, as well as the hazards they pose to space shuttle operations. As a sidelight, the busy little fellow checked out the effects of small comets colliding with the sun.

As of September 13, P78-1 is no more, shot down over the Pacific Ocean by a U.S. Air Force antisatellite missile in a test of the ASAT program. The Air Force pronounced the exercise "flawless," and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said that he was "absolutely delighted." In all the excitement the Air Force's identification of the downed bird as, in the words of The New York Times, "a defunct six-year-old military satellite," went unchallenged.

Now we know that P78-1 was not defunct; nor was its mission military. The Pentagon lied. In the aftermath of the test, some scientists protested. Robert MacQueen, director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, delivered P78-1's eulogy: "They took a scientifically useful satellite and sacrificed it this way." As this month's issue of Research and Development points out in an editorial, not only was a valuable source of data lost but pieces of P78-1 are now drifting about in space, "all capable of puncturing the suit of an extravehicular astronaut or damaging a spacecraft."

The little satellite's fate is emblematic of the aim of the Strategic Defense Initiative--destruction rather than knowledge. Let P78-1's epitaph read: "Here lies science. Shot down by Star Wars."

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Title Annotation:artificial satellite
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Nov 30, 1985
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