Outer space has often been described as the final frontier, but the part of space near Earth where satellites orbit is no longer really a frontier — it’s more a rapidly growing space settlement. Old West settlements were rough places, but the settlers recognized that rules of behavior and accepted ways to resolve disputes were needed to reap the riches the frontier offered.
In much the same way, this former frontier of near-space is today a largely lawless environment, whose key players increasingly realize they need rules of behavior and ways to resolve disputes without shootouts to reap the riches offered.
In the past two decades, more than 20 countries have launched hundreds of satellites into orbit and created hundreds of thousands of pieces of orbiting space junk. These satellites provide many billions of dollars’ worth of commercial, scientific and military services each year, with the U.S. by far the greatest beneficiary.
GPS and Google Earth only begin to scratch the surface of the benefits we receive. But as near-space becomes increasingly congested and more countries rush to reap its riches, some civilization in the form of cooperation and rules of the road is needed, just as in the Old West.
Near-space faces growing problems of satellite collisions, transmission interference and traffic problems, not to mention clueless, careless, selfish and even malicious human space behavior. Space junk poses an increasing threat to satellites, and even the international space station has had to conduct emergency maneuvers twice this year to avoid colliding with space junk. There has been a growing thirst for practical space leadership, though for years, too little appeared.
The European Union finally stepped into this leadership vacuum in 2008, offering a draft voluntary space code of conduct for international consideration. While not perfect, it offers a promising basis for an international code, as the U.S. Defense Department has stated. The United States has already suggested useful changes to the early draft.
An international space code can bring more order and stability to space, encouraging countries to act responsibly there and help ensure that the bounty that space provides, from GPS-enabled devices to satellite communications and more, can be nurtured and expanded. Such a code can reduce the risk of misunderstandings and misconduct in space, just as maritime codes of behavior have done for many years on the high seas.
Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, supports pursuing an international code and sees it as consistent with U.S. military strategy. Commercial space users are increasingly supportive as well. The Defense Department has noted that “an international code of conduct can enhance U.S. national security by encouraging responsible space behavior by reducing the risk of mishaps, misperceptions and mistrust.”
Some national security analysts are concerned that such a code would prevent the U.S. from defending its interests in space and would circumvent the Senate’s treaty-making powers. They mistakenly argue that the code would, in effect, be a treaty.
Yet the executive branch reaches all kinds of modest, non-binding understandings with other countries that are not presented to the Senate for ratification. A space code of conduct, being non-binding and voluntary, falls in this same category. The proposed code explicitly recognizes its non-binding nature and further recognizes the primacy of the right of self-defense, so U.S. security interests are protected.
The lack of international norms seriously weakens our ability to take irresponsible countries to task. If there are no rules, then by definition, there can be no rule breakers. And the increasing chaos of an uncivilized “anything goes” environment in near-space will discourage future investment and limit or diminish the benefits space can provide.
There is a more serious reason that ties U.S. security to a space code of conduct. At the dawn of the 21st century, the issue of responsible space behavior was increasingly recognized as space became much more prominent in the economic lives of the U.S. and other nations. The world sought leadership and naturally turned to the United States, but we said and did almost nothing. We have the chance now to reassert our space leadership and encourage others to join us in making near-space a civilized place. But only if we act.
For the U.S. to now turn its back on working with other countries on a space code of conduct would be a major abdication of leader-ship. The devastating message to our allies and others would be, “Looking for leadership on responsible space behavior? Don’t look to America.”
The U.S. can and should engage with other space-faring nations in developing a space code of conduct to ensure U.S. security interests are protected, and that space becomes a safer, more orderly place to reap the commercial, scientific and military benefits the heavens can provide.
Bruce MacDonald, a national security and space consultant. He was assistant director for national security at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, and served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee.