For Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, the man responsible for the $60-billion program to defend the United States from missile attacks, the pressure Saturday night must have been immense.
When he greeted reporters in the Pentagon briefing room shortly after midnight to report on the success of a crucial test of the system, he looked exhausted.
His eyes were bloodshot, as if he hadn't slept. As he fielded questions, he looked dazed.
But then somebody asked him how he felt about the outcome of the test, and a smile took shape. "Yesterday," he said, referring to yet another briefing on Friday, "I told you I was quietly confident about the test.
"Tonight, I feel quietly very good."
He should, because the stakes are enormous.
On both sides of the debate, people argue that man's very existence lies in the balance.
As Raghubir Goyal, the Washington-based correspondent for Asia Today put it, "The whole world is watching, especially the concerned countries."
He was referring to China and Russia. Even to some of America's European allies.
Technologically, what the Pentagon accomplished at precisely 11:09 p.m. on Saturday was to knock down a mock warhead over the Pacific Ocean with an interceptor, or so-called "kill vehicle."
Politically, what the Pentagon achieved was to give White House plans for a missile shield a boost and further crack open a can of worms, as concerned countries and arms control advocates cried foul.
Whatever your political leanings, the science behind the test was impressive.
Scientists say the direct hit was akin to a "bullet hitting a bullet."
At the moment of impact, 144 miles in space, both the dummy warhead and the interceptor, partly navigating by the stars, were traveling 4.5 miles per second.
Reporters monitoring the $100-million test from the Army Simulation Center, a cramped video-teleconference room in the Pentagon, saw the white flash but in silence, because the audio cut out. While video of the mission control room in Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific showed people cheering and clapping and hugging, the corridors of the Pentagon were quiet.
In addition to the engineering feat, the test was draped with political overtones.
A miss, as was the case in two of three previous tries, almost certainly would have put added pressure on the Bush administration to slow the program.
Already, prominent Democrats in the Senate are threatening to withhold additional funding, insisting they're not getting straight answers from the White House.
A hit, however, can only embolden the administration, as it flirts with the notion of scrapping the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an agreement with the former Soviet Union that bans a national missile defense.
The pact, inherited by Russia, was based on the assumption that a ban of a national missile shield would discourage both sides from launching a first strike out of fear of retaliation.
For the Pentagon, the next test is scheduled for October.
Supporters of the program argue that the United States needs the system to guard against attacks by rogue states like North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Besides, some say, the ABM Treaty is moot because the Soviet Union no longer exists.
Opponents insist that deployment of a national missile defense system would lead to a more dangerous world, with America's adversaries cranking out nuclear warheads in an effort to overcome its defenses.
Russia has been especially critical.
On Sunday, it reiterated its concerns, insisting that the test Saturday night threatens treaties aimed at reducing the likelihood of nuclear war. The Bush administration wants Russia to agree to amend or replace the treaty.
President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to hold consultations on the treaty during their summit in Ljubljana, Slovenia, last month. They are expected to discuss the issue when they meet next Sunday at the G-8 summit of industrialized nations in Genoa, Italy.
By 2004, the administration is hoping to have in place at least a rudimentary missile shield.
Even with the successful test, opponents weren't about to give the Pentagon, or the White House, any credit. John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, an arms control think tank, called the program "A Shield of Dreams."
"It is not worth violating a treaty that for 30 years has kept the nuclear peace," Isaacs said, "for a missile shield that doesn't work half the time."
During the news conference early Sunday, Kadish acknowledged that the test fell short of simulating a real attack.
"This test is just one on a journey, one stop on a journey," he said. But with a direct hit, "We'll gain confidence."
Developments in U.S. missile defense efforts since 1983
MARCH 23, 1983: President Ronald Reagan announces plans for an extensive program to examine the feasibility of a missile defense program. The concept _ derided as "Star Wars" by opponents in Congress _ revises the nation's 35-year-old nuclear strategy by focusing on missile defense rather than the ability to retaliate against nuclear attack.
JUNE 10, 1984: An Army interceptor destroys a target missile over the Pacific Ocean.
SEPT. 6, 1985: A Titan rocket is destroyed by an infrared advanced chemical laser.
JANUARY 1991: The first operational engagement between ballistic missiles and ballistic missile defenses occurs during the Gulf War.
APRIL 1, 1997: The Ballistic Missile Defense Organization establishes the Joint Program office to design and develop a system by 2003.
APRIL 30, 1998: Boeing gets a $1.6-billion contract to be the lead systems integrator for the program.
JULY 23, 1999: President Clinton signs the National Missile Defense Act. He says threat, cost, technological status and adherence to a renegotiated Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty are the four criteria in making his decision to deploy such a system.
AUG. 17, 1999: The United States and Russia resume strategic arms talks that include modification of the ABM Treaty.
OCT. 2, 1999: The first integrated flight test successfully intercepts its target.
JAN. 18, 2000: The second integrated flight test fails because of moisture inside the "kill vehicle" _ the weapon section of the interceptor _ which prevented it from using heat-seeking devices to detect its target.
JULY 7, 2000: The third integrated flight test fails when the kill vehicle fails to separate from its booster rocket.
SEPT. 1, 2000: Clinton decides not to authorize work to begin on deploying national missile defense, on grounds that the reliability of the technology had not been proven.
DEC. 28, 2000: Boeing is awarded a new, six-year, $6-billion contract for national missile defense.
APRIL 10, 2001: Russia, China and North Korea tell the U.N. Disarmament Commission that a U.S. missile defense system would threaten international security, trigger a new arms race and undermine the ABM Treaty.
MAY 1, 2001: President Bush declares, "We need a new framework that allows us to build missile defenses to counter the different threats of today's world."
JUNE 27, 2001: The proposed 2002 defense budget is submitted to Congress, allotting $7-billion _ later amended to $8.3-billion _ for missile defense, a $3-billion increase over this year.
SATURDAY NIGHT: The fourth integrated flight test, the first since Bush took office, is a success. Each test costs about $100-million.
Sources: Center for Defense Information, Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and Facts on File.