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NBC space expert on North Korea satellite launch: 'It's not a military missile ... but it's darn close'

South Korean intelligence officials say North Korea may be preparing for a third underground nuclear test. The possible test comes at the same time as North Korea is poised to launch a satellite. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

When we learned that North Korea was planning on opening its tightly restricted Sohae Satellite Launching Center to foreign journalists for the first time, NBC News quickly decided we would need an expert eye to determine the accuracy and authenticity of Pyongyang’s claim that this latest rocket launch was for peaceful scientific purposes.

North Korea says it is planning to launch a weather observation satellite using a three-stage rocket during mid-April to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. But the United States and South Korea say it is a test of a ballistic missile.

So NBC News invited James Oberg, our “Space Consultant,” to accompany us into North Korea to view the Kwanggmyongsong-1 satellite.

With a 22-year career as a space engineer in support of NASA’s spaceflight operations, Oberg has the experience and technical expertise to determine the veracity of North Korea’s claims about this mission.

NBC sat down with Oberg after visiting the Sohae Satellite Launch Center on Sunday to get his initial impressions of the facility, the mysterious satellite and the future of North Korea’s space program.


 

Q.  What are your first impressions from this visit to Sohae?
A: It was just amazing to be there, and the impression was that someone in the North Korean government made a very courageous decision to let us in.

Q. Going into this, you said you had a couple of standards you were looking for in this satellite that would in your mind, settle whether it was real. What were they?
A: I expected the satellite to be in a clean room; a clean environment free of dust, smudges and things. I expected the satellite to probably be already mounted on the third stage [hardware that connects to the booster] and ready to move out to the launch pad. I expected the satellite to have a reasonable design; it should follow standard designs, like power and solar panels and so forth. I was really surprised by what we saw.

Inside North Korea: Closely watched launch poses risks

Q. So did this satellite pass muster?
A: The satellite did not meet the expectations I had. I have to ask myself whether these expectations may have been too narrow, but at the same time it raised questions in my mind as to how real what we were being shown was. We asked whether this was a mock-up; in fact, we kept on asking them again and again because they insisted this was a real satellite.

The problem is the North Koreans didn’t just let us in [to the same room as the satellite], they let us get much too close. I could’ve walked three steps and poked it with my finger. But I didn’t want to put grease and smudges on the outside because it could lead the device to overheat in space or it could change a lot of things about the electro-static environment.  So you need to protect the satellite from contamination – from touching, from people breathing on it, sneezing on it. And we were all coming in covered in dust after a long road trip. They didn’t protect the satellite from any of that.

Maybe the satellite is built to be rugged; maybe they don’t care. We’ll find out if they launch it, if it works or not.

Q. Talk about your first impressions of the satellite. Was there anything surprising about the satellite to you?
A: I thought at first it was a model. I thought it was a symbolic representation. I couldn’t believe it was flight hardware. I couldn’t believe it was the one being launched in a few days.

It’s certainly not a design I’ve seen much before.  Right now, I’m curious about how the satellite was designed. I think perhaps they were worried we would be interested because until today they had not released a photograph or even a drawing of it. They kept its configurations a secret. Maybe it’s because they realized it was going to puzzle people.

Q. Talk about the significance of this launch. Why is it important?
A: This is a very significant launch because of the publicity on it. It’s going to be much harder to fake it if something does go wrong. But we should be prepared to accept a launch abort or a mission failure in a mature way, because that’s what happens to space powers when they start their program.

The significance of the launch, of course, is the booster itself. The booster is bigger than it has to be. It’s based on Han missiles. It’s not a military missile … but it’s darn close. Like we’ve said on TV, this rocket is not a weapon, but it’s maybe 98 percent of one.

It can be converted all too easily and all too frighteningly into a weapon, and they don’t need it. They don’t need a booster of this size, of this cost, to launch a satellite they say they want to. They seem to be overdoing it, and that can hurt a country, not help it.

For example, the Russians were seriously involved in building similar projects like their own Buran space shuttle just to compete and show off to the West. And they contributed significantly to bankrupting their own intellectual potential and real budgets in the 1980s as [the Soviet Union] was grinding to a halt.

They didn’t go bankrupt because of the Buran project, but it did symbolize the wasteful spending that they were doing based on merely show-off projects. Those lessons should be taken to heart in a rational -- hypothetically rational -- North Korean regime.

Q: In your opinion, what are some of the problems the North Koreans face in launching this satellite?
A: The North Koreans face scheduling pressures as they have stated publicly already that they will launch it in time for a national holiday, and not just any holiday, one of the most profound national holidays in the country’s history [the 100th birthday of North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung]. That kind of pressure has frequently led to disaster in other countries’ programs.

So I think the odds of them actually successfully launching is a real toss-up. I wouldn’t want to put a number on it, but in my opinion it’s significantly in doubt that they’ll get this thing into orbit. And then, once it’s in orbit, I think it’s significantly in doubt that they can make it work. But they’re going to try, and they’ve chosen to do it in the full glare of publicity.

But I think they need to be rewarded for making that decision. It doesn’t mean that we have to believe everything they have said, but we should at least pay some attention to it. It is a very dynamic situation because of the North Koreans' unprecedented openness. If we don’t want them to slam the door shut, we probably need to find some way of making it pay off for them.

Q. We only had limited access to the North Koreans’ launch control room, but can you give us your impressions of the area and its team?
A: As I’ve observed the control team, they were obviously set up in staged positions. The main thing I was impressed with was the familiarity of it from my own experience on our mission control. It really struck me as too elaborate and too authentic to be a fake. It felt real to me. The director’s presentation and answers felt real. They resonated with my own experiences, and so I have no doubt that they’re showing a genuine launch control center. To see this team there, it was a remarkable feeling of familiarity, even though I couldn’t understand them except through the interpreters.

Q. If the launch is successful and the satellite deploys and accomplishes its mission, would that be a step toward North Korea becoming an equal partner in space?

A: It’s a sign they’ve put a lot of money on show-off projects because the actual services they expect to get from this [weather] satellite can be obtained tomorrow with a credit card. There are a number of providers who already supply the information this satellite is supposed to provide like taking orbital pictures, providing weather data, etc. For a country of approximately 24 million in the economic state it’s in now, it basically can’t afford a rocket of this size. They are spending far too much money for a service they can easily obtain elsewhere. So the reasons for the launch must lie elsewhere. They probably want to sell these rockets to other countries. These other countries probably don’t want them for peaceful purposes either.

More from James Oberg in msnbc.com's Space News section

Inside North Korea: Closely watched luunch poses risks

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