PEARL HARBOR (NNS) -- The crew members of the USS Lake Erie (CG 70) were calm as they fired the latest shot heard round the world.
The Aegis-class cruiser fired the missile that destroyed a dead spy satellite that posed a threat to humans Feb. 21.
Capt. Randall M. Hendrickson, Lake Erie's commanding officer, spoke to reporters Feb. 24 aboard the ship, which has just returned from the mission. The visiting reporters are traveling with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited the ship.
Hendrickson said the crew worked intensively for a month and a half before the shootdown.
"We kept working up with a team of government experts and technicians, as well as industry partners," Hendrickson said.
The group worked to gather information and modify the Standard Missile 3 and the Aegis weapon system, he explained. They started tracking the satellite at different times to get radar cross-section data, which helped build the program software, Hendrickson said.
"Obviously there was a lot of anticipation building up each time we practiced, each time we tracked," he said.
The ship's weapons systems officer, Lt. Cmdr. Drew Bates, said the rehearsals really helped when push came to shove.
"By the time we did this, we had seen it a hundred times," he said. "We were practicing what to do in case things go wrong. Fortunately nothing went wrong. This went just the way it was designed to happen, and hats off to the industry team for giving the nation a system that was able to have the excess capability to do this."
The satellite was unlike any target the system was designed to go after, the captain said. The satellite was in orbit rather than on a ballistic trajectory. Also, the satellite was traveling at incredible speeds.
Lake Erie left here the day officials announced President George W. Bush's decision to try to shoot down the satellite. Hendrickson said the ship was in position when the shuttle Atlantis returned from its mission.
The ship received the order that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates had OK'd the mission at mid-morning on Feb. 21.
"From that point on, the ship was very calm," Hendrickson said. "Obviously, the closer we got, there was a lot of anticipation. The firing team was very calm when we did it and, with the exception of the 'whoosh' when it went out of the launcher, it was just as scripted."
He said that when the missile's seeker opened its eyes it had the satellite "right dead center."
When the missile hit the satellite, "there was a lot of cheering" aboard the ship, he said.
The crew knew from the kinetic warhead imagery in the nose of the missile that it was a good hit, Hendrickson said.
"The radar scope went wild," he said. "At that point, there was a lot of debris, a lot of pieces and ... we thought we had a pretty good impact. Then [it] was confirmed by the aircraft that were airborne, the radars ashore and some other sensors that it was pretty much obliterated. Over the next three to four hours, a lot of it was burning up as it was coming down, which was the whole point of it."
Civilian experts from the Navy facility in Dahlgren, Va., and contractors from Lockheed Martin and from Raytheon Co. helped the crew prepare for the shot. But Navy Sailors manned the consoles for the mission.
Everyone on the Lake Erie contributed, Hendrickson said.
"Whatever the task is, there's no small task on a ship," he said.
The reaction of the crew is unbelievable, said Command Master Chief (AW/SW) Mack Ellis, the highest-ranking enlisted Sailor aboard Lake Erie.
"Even the youngest Sailor who didn't understand it at first, every time they walk somewhere and people know they are from Lake Erie, they say congratulations. It puts a smile of their face and makes their day."