PHOTOS BY CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
USS Lake Erie arrived back at Pearl Harbor yesterday after shooting down an ailing spy satellite on Wednesday. Above, Master Chief Petty Officer Mack Ellis gave a thumbs-up to a well-wisher on shore. Capt. Randall M. Hendrickson, commanding officer of the vessel, was right behind him. At left, an enthusiastic but small group of wives and friends greeted the ship.
Navy crew feels proud after blasting satellite
Team effort produces kill shot
The gray paint on the missile silo hatch was blackened from the launch of a satellite-busting interceptor missile -- the first launch of its kind for USS Lake Erie.
"I may leave the launcher unpainted for a couple of weeks to make us feel good," said Capt. Randall M. Hendrickson, commanding officer of the vessel.
Hendrickson's remark showed the pride he had for the 360 sailors whom he credited with the success of Wednesday's revolutionary mission.
For the past month and a half, the crew had trained to intercept an ailing spy satellite described as being the size of a school bus. The government's main concern was a fuel tank containing 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine, which they feared would be dangerous should it ever fall to Earth.
"The system's not designed to go for a straight-flying target," Hendrickson said aboard the vessel, which returned to Pearl Harbor yesterday morning. "They had to modify some of the software to take the caps off of the programs and allow it to track something that fast."
The ship left Pearl Harbor on Feb. 14 and made its way to a spot northwest of Hawaii in the North Pacific. Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Bates fired the SM-3 missile but was reluctant to take any credit because the entire operation was a team effort.
The missile fired, making a "whoosh" sound, as Hendrickson described it. It struck the satellite, which was traveling at 17,000 mph.
"I heard some cheering in the passageway," said Bates, the ship's combat systems officer. "Throughout the ship I'm sure there was a big sigh of relief because that's been our focus for the past month and a half."
Bates said it felt gratifying to be in a ship that was capable of the historic feat. The vessel is the first warship to shoot down a satellite. It is one of three Aegis cruisers in the Pacific fleet with the same capability.
All the modifications to the ship's weapons systems have been removed already, he said.
"We're back to our certified tactical configuration," Bates said. "Lake Erie has a long history of conducting ballistic missile engagements. ... We're used to having new items on board."
The ship has been able to hit a drone missile nine out of 11 tries and has led the ballistic missile tests conducted at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.
Master Chief Petty Officer Mack Ellis said he was so thrilled with the operation, he decided to extend his tour with the ship for another year.
"It's just good stuff," Ellis said. "Every shot we make, it seems like it's a highlight -- until the next shot comes, then that turns into a highlight. You think it's the same thing, but it starts all over again."
A handful of relatives and friends were at Pearl Harbor to greet the returning ship. Casey Rivera was waiting for her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Gene Rivera, with Valentine's Day greetings because he left with the ship on that day.
"It seemed like forever," Rivera said. "I didn't even know what he was involved with. It was really kept secret."
Rivera said she found out about her husband's operation through the media, and prayed for his success.
"I had never watched so much news in my life," she said. "Still, he came back a lot quicker than I thought."