The Politics of Space Junk

Editor’s note: Lisa Ruth Rand was the winner of the 2018–19 NASA/AHA Fellowship in Aerospace History.

On a March day during the final weeks of the heated 2019 Indian election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a startling announcement—the Indian space program had successfully shot one of its own satellites out of the sky. The ground-to-air missile used for the anti-satellite (ASAT) test split the Microsat-R satellite into hundreds of pieces. Some of the debris quickly fell back to Earth, but many pieces of varying sizes remained aloft. This new debris joined over half a century’s worth of human-made orbiting artifacts—functioning satellites and nonfunctioning debris alike—in free fall around the planet.

An artist’s impression of debris objects in orbit around Earth. Credit: ESA-P. Carril

An artist’s impression of debris objects in orbit around Earth. Credit: ESA-P.Carril.

This was not the first ASAT test to create debris in orbit. In 2007, China destroyed one of its own weather satellites, and the United States followed suit the next year with a similar demonstration. China’s ASAT test created an unprecedented amount of debris in the same orbital region as many valuable satellites, including the International Space Station. At such low orbits, objects travel at speeds of nearly 8 kilometers per second—a clip at which even small things can pack a destructive punch. The space station astronauts have repeatedly taken shelter when passing close to speeding debris, including detritus from the 2007 ASAT test.

In each of these tests, a spacefaring state attempted to demonstrate its ability to shape the extraterritorial regions beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Although the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 designates those regions as the common heritage of all humankind, protected from claims of sovereignty or ownership, powerful nations have exerted influence over space since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. It’s not only the creation and use of technology that reinforces the distribution of power in space (and everywhere else), it’s also the industrial byproducts of those processes. Human beings instigated the creation of debris in events like ASAT tests, but human and nonhuman forces alike became entangled in the material aftermath of each incident, particularly when space debris moved in politically fraught directions. Whether remaining aloft or falling back to Earth, the byproducts of the space industry are part of a landscape that affects the politics and material conditions of space and Earth—and vice versa. We shape space even as it shapes us.

My first book, tentatively titled Space Junk: A History of Waste in Orbit, not only demonstrates that the Cold War Space Age was truly global in its reach, it also argues that decay was just as crucial as innovation in bringing new states and communities into that cultural and political era. Even nations and communities that did not benefit from satellite information products entered the Space Age through encounters with space junk.

Many current space policy experts characterize space debris as a problem of recent vintage, with public awareness only arising since the 1980s. But the real or potential crowding of Earth orbit with human-made objects has been a topic of specialist and popular concern since the very beginning of the Space Age. Given ongoing debate about the sustainable management of Earth orbit—especially as private industry has gained a stronger foothold in a region previously dominated by national governments—my research also provides historical background for current policy questions. The Indian ASAT test of 2019 has further intensified calls for stronger international governance to keep space free and clear for continued use.

With the support of the 2018–19 Fellowship in Aerospace History provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the American Historical Association, I advanced my research on the environmental history of near-Earth space during the Cold War. I focused particularly on developing new material highlighting efforts by developing and nonaligned states during the 1970s to participate in the management of Earth orbit. I worked with archival materials gathered from collections including the United Nations, the National Academy of Sciences, and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to examine how these states battled what some characterized as a neocolonial status quo in orbit.

My work during the fellowship period focused primarily on the contentious allocation of geostationary orbit (GEO)—a region of space 35,786 kilometers above the surface of the Earth that supports the operations of valuable satellites, especially those used for communications. In the midst of growing environmentalist and postcolonial political movements on the ground during the 1970s, the ITU designated GEO a “limited natural resource” that could be depleted if it wasn’t managed effectively and fairly. At the time, very few satellites, all owned and operated by the United States, the Soviet Union, or European states, orbited in GEO. In response, in 1976 a coalition of developing nations declared sovereignty over the orbit. Designating it as part of Earth, not part of space, due to its unique, Earth-generated physical properties, the coalition argued that GEO should not be governed by the Outer Space Treaty. Coalition members asserted instead that the treaty and its corollaries were developed for and in service of a few wealthy, powerful nations at the expense of latecomers, and sought to work within existing legal regimes to fight for a more egalitarian order in Earth orbit.

These ultimately unsuccessful efforts to push back against rules set by a few nations reverberate today as GEO continues to crowd. While some of the nations that participated in the declaration of sovereignty remain on the fringes of international space politics—many do not currently own or operate satellites—some have become power players in the space industry. These early acts of resistance to Western hegemony in space echo in the messy aftermath of the Microsat-R ASAT. Efforts to reshape power in space have shifted from legal resistance to projectiles and debris, signifying a pressing need to revise international rules to reduce waste in space—with an eye toward the longer history of broader international participation in orbital environmental governance.

I would like to thank NASA and the AHA for providing the precious gift of time and material support during a crucial period of development for my first book.

Lisa Ruth Rand earned her PhD in history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in residence at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

Visit the AHA Grants and Fellowships page for more information about this and other fellowships.

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