WASHINGTON — Less than two days after parts of an uncontrolled Chinese rocket fell into the Indian Ocean, the Pentagon said allowing a large booster to free fall toward Earth is “irresponsible behavior.”

“We want to see everybody who are actors in space do so in a responsible, deliberate way that’s mindful of the safety of all our citizens here on Earth,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters May 10.

Debris from the roughly 30-meter-long, five-meter-wide empty core stage of China’s Long March 5B fell into the Indian Ocean May 8. The uncontrolled reentry prompted international concern over whether it might land in a populated area.

Kirby said countries that conduct activities in space should share information about those activities, especially when they put people at risk. “It important, for the safety of everybody who uses the space domain to communicate, and to improve situational awareness,” he said. “We want everybody to behave responsibly and to ascribe, at the very least, to some internationally accepted norms of behavior.”

Former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said May 10 the Long March 5B episode is another reminder that the United States needs to step up diplomatic efforts to compel China to change its behavior. 

This is the latest of several instances where China has acted irresponsibly, Bridenstine said during a Heritage Foundation virtual event.

When China in 2007 shot down its own weather satellite “it resulted in orbital debris that today we’re still dealing with. Of course, this wasn’t a unique event with the Long March 5B,” Bridenstine said.

He recalled a similar episode in May 2020 when pieces from another Chinese Long March 5B core stage landed on the Ivory Coast, causing damage to buildings.

“Look, there has to be responsible behavior in space, it’s critical that we use the elements of diplomacy to compel good behavior,” Bridenstine said.

From a national security standpoint, he said, it’s even more concerning that China could be deploying hardware in space that the United States might not be able to track. 

“What concerns me most is not a rocket body that everybody knew about, was watching and paying attention to,” he said. “But what are the things we can’t see, like cubesats, that we don’t know about?”

The Space Force, he said, needs to step up its capabilities to monitor outer space. “We have to be really good at space situational awareness,” he added. “A rocket body launched from China that everybody knows and sees, yeah, that’s a problem from a public policy perspective, but that’s not what concerns me when you think about the threats in space that would be nefarious in nature.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...