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The Future of Space: Trouble on the Final Frontier

Nearly one hundred countries, including the world’s spacefaring nations, have formally agreed upon the principles set out in the 1967 “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,” more commonly known as the UN Outer Space Treaty. This document represents our global consensus on the fate and disposition of the rest of our solar system, of our galaxy’s one hundred billion other stars (and their solar systems), and of the one hundred billion additional galaxies in the universe; it was all decided before the first moon landing.

It is not unusual for the diplomatic community to indulge in grandiose overreach with treaty agreements about potentially contested territory. Nor is it unusual for international diplomats to express outrage when a state violates international or treaty norms, as happened with China’s 2007 surprise anti-satellite weapons test. But it does seem to be quite odd that so many countries have come together to show such interest in a domain that is so difficult to get to, has been populated for only a few decades, and has a regular settlement of a half-dozen people.

What is often ignored in the linguistic pieties about the peaceful use of space is that it is the principal thoroughfare for delivering on the ugly threats of mutual assured destruction. Space is also home to numerous tools indispensible to any modern military fighting a conventional war. What makes this distant and inclement real estate so valuable is that it has—tactically and strategically—the best view in the world.

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By the time the space race began in earnest, the world’s superpowers were keenly aware of the many different potential uses of that ne plus ultra of military high grounds. The Eisenhower administration recognized early on that the Soviet launch of Sputnik would establish, by precedent, the right of satellites to overfly national territory, effectively altering terrestrial laws about sovereignty and airspace. The US and USSR agreed to treaties declaring that space should not be an arena for military rivalry but should be reserved exclusively for peaceful scientific efforts, preferably of the international variety. This is the same reasoning that drove much of the Cold War treaty framework governing (mis)behavior in Antarctica and on the world’s seabeds.

These treaties continue to do a stellar job of keeping spacefaring nations from starting World War Three in space. But while there are well-established mechanisms for figuring who can park a satellite in a given orbital slot, any sort of property rights that would be recognizable to a prospector, miner, banker, or developer have been squelched by the insistence that space is common to all humanity, regardless of who actually foots the bill for the surveyor—or who can send someone to stop him. There aren’t a lot of obvious ways past this problem that don’t involve a battalion of lawyers and diplomats, at least until some nation is bold enough to declare that those who object to its adventuresome behavior under the existing treaty framework can “get lost.”

On Earth, this logic would eventually lead to talk about the possibility of war among the spacefaring powers. But space warfare doesn’t really have a good, foundational body of philosophical thinking. Ground warfare had Carl von Clausewitz, naval warfare came of age with Alfred Thayer Mahan, and shortly after the invention of powered flight Billy Mitchell laid out the gospel of strategic bombing. Maybe we haven’t really had enough conflict in space to develop programmatic ways of thinking about the subject.

This philosophical ambiguity is mirrored in organizational fuzziness about the distinction between civilian and military space programs. Some countries don’t even bother with the distinction, which could be arbitrary anyway. Exploration has historically been a military or quasi-military effort, because militaries are all about mounting large, infrastructure-intensive, technologically challenging engineering projects. President Eisenhower’s creation of NASA was significant precisely because he wanted to take the space exploration mission away from the military altogether. Eisenhower wanted to avoid an expensive arms race in space, and pushed for a more modest space program focused on “science,” rather than an “engineering” program that could have led to an expensive, pointless, competitive space race. So when observers get exercised about the Chinese space program mixing its military and civil missions, it is worth remembering that the current NASA administrator retired as a major general in the Marine Corps, and every NASA administrator since the 1986 Challenger accident has been either a member of the military, a Pentagon civilian, or a product of the defense industry.

 

All space technologies are inherently dual-use. Getting to and operating in space is very difficult. Nearly all advances made in electronics or guidance or materials for space can be applied to weapons systems. One country’s launch vehicle is another’s ballistic missile. The GPS that guides bombers is the same system found in an Escalade. The problem of determining what is dual-use (and how dual-use it is) has kept US legislators and regulators busy for decades trying to figure out what space technology we can and can’t sell and to whom we can or can’t sell it. So far, the primary question seems to be whether we should support our own industry and give the Chinese a technological boost by selling them our stuff (which they might use against us), or whether we should hurt US industry by limiting exports, thereby encouraging China to build up their own capabilities (which they might sell back to us).

Since the dawn of the Space Age, military applications have been essential to the development of space technology. The majority of US government space spending goes to national security missions. Today, extensive and effective use of space in all kinds of conflicts, from navigating through Kandahar to bombing Tripoli, is regarded as an irreplaceable component of American military dominance. Space systems play a huge part in terrestrial military operations, from reconnaissance, to GPS, to communications. About eighty-five percent of the US military communication traffic to the Middle East goes through commercial satellites.

The United States and Soviet Union both developed and tested space weapons systems. The crowning achievement of Reagan’s Star Wars program might be said to have been the development of a Soviet satellite named Polyus. This eighty-thousand-kilogram behemoth (heavier than Skylab or any American space shuttle) was a full-blown battle station, armed with, among other things, a one-megawatt carbon dioxide laser intended to blow up Reagan’s vaporware. The spacecraft was designed as the first module of the Mir-2 orbital space station (which itself evolved into the Russian portion of the International Space Station), but when it was launched in May 1987, a bad bit of guidance programming sent it into a high-velocity half gainer—rather than into orbit—and it crashed into the South Pacific.

Other exotic concepts were considered during the Cold War: manned (and armed) reconnaissance satellites, paint for sabotaging satellites with overheating, use of a shuttle-like vehicle as a nuclear bomber, and so on. Of these, only one achieved any meaningful operational success: the Soviet-manned Almaz military reconnaissance platforms (armed with a 23-mm cannon), which turned out to be more trouble than they were worth.

 

But all this talk of the Death Star and Battlestar Galactica (incidentally, terms that are both used within the space warfare community) distracts from the fundamentals of space operations. Of all the features of space operations, the most essential aspect of things in orbit is that they’re going stupendously fast. In fact, getting things to move faster than anyone can reasonably be expected to imagine is the single, inescapable requirement for putting things in space. Orbit may look like slow-motion ballet, but it is roughly seven times faster than the muzzle velocity of a round from an M-16 assault rifle. This means that everything in space (be it debris, defunct satellites, tools dropped by astronauts) is a potential landmine. This is why so many people raised such a fuss when, in 2007, the Chinese casually decided to decommission one of their own satellites, an act that instantaneously turned an inert one-ton chunk of obsolete electronics into tens of thousands of bits of incredibly destructive shrapnel. Today, fragments of that satellite continue to flit around, waiting for a multibillion-dollar communications or reconnaissance satellite to blunder into their path. Because damage is proportional to the velocity squared, a chunk of debris roughly the mass of a softball travelling at orbital speeds has about as much kinetic energy as a round from the main gun of a tank.

Thus, every object in orbit is a threat to everything else in orbit, regardless of its intended function. This means that it is not always easy to distinguish between war and peace in space. Sadly, the classical models of nuclear deterrence that have served us well on Earth for more than half a century don’t translate well into concepts of deterrence in space.

The US, for instance, would theoretically respond to an attack on its GPS satellite constellation with nuclear weapons. Yet for deterrence to work, it has to be credible, and nobody knows if Washington will really start swapping nukes with Moscow or Beijing just because the GPS navigation system in your Explorer starts giving even worse directions than it normally does. Through most of the twentieth century, we were reasonably certain that the people who had the ability to start a big nuclear war also had the most to lose. With nukes, it takes a lot of effort and expertise to go from A-bombs to H-bombs or from fighter-bombers to ICBMs. However, given the existence of space debris, the Doomsday Device for space warfare is actually a very modest, entry-level sort of capability. Launching a couple of tons of screws into a retrograde orbit (against the flow of traffic) would destroy a number of satellites, each collision spawning more debris, destroying even more satellites in turn—eventually clearing out everything at that altitude. It hasn’t escaped the attention of planners that this kind of attack would allow the craziest and most audacious of states to send any military heavily dependent on space assets back a few decades.

This presents military planners with a problem: an attack on a GPS satellite might (or might not) invite nuclear retaliation. But part of the equation is that blowing up the other guy’s satellites can create so much debris that one’s own are also doomed to destruction. It is no surprise, therefore, that planners have realized that if the goal is to black out an opponent’s satellites it is far easier to jam or blow up the ground stations used to control them than to launch an attack in space.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty has been a good, if relatively temporary, measure for reining in superpower competition. It has certainly prevented nations from undertaking a lot of dangerous activities in space. But a new era has dawned: issues ranging from new defense applications and dual-use technologies to growing accumulations of space debris present policymakers with entirely different challenges from those that gave us the Outer Space Treaty. Recent events, such as the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite weapons test or the accidental collision of two satellites (one Russian, one American) in 2009, are forcing the development of new thinking about space.

Policymakers now face the possibility of exploring space in a different way—as a realm for the full spectrum of human activity, including everything from property rights to deterrence structures. The question now facing them is whether the physics and economics of doing things in space will make the new regime self-correcting or in need of greater regulation. In either case, perhaps it is now time to see what parts of the Outer Space Treaty are themselves Cold War relics that ought to be jettisoned.

G. Ryan Faith is a Washington-based research analyst for the Space Foundation.

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