COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The future ability of nations and companies to utilize space will be at grave risk in the absence of multinational cooperation and the establishment of “rules of the road” governing activities in the increasingly crowded orbital environment, a senior U.S. State Department official warned.
Frank A. Rose, deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, voiced his concern during an address April 18 at the 28th National Space Symposium here.
“Space is being increasingly contested in all orbits,” he said. “Unless the international community adopts pragmatic and constructive measures to avoid accidents and respond to the danger of irresponsible behavior in space, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to both human and robotic spaceflight.”
Fifty years ago space was the domain of just two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, who were locked in a race for power and prestige. But in the decades since, Rose said, the situation has become much more complicated as now 60 nations or government consortia, as well as many commercial enterprises and academic institutions, have entered space and changed it |dramatically.
“Over 50 years of space activity has littered Earth’s orbit with debris, and as activities in space increase, the chance for collision correspondingly increases,” Rose said. He pointed to the number of near misses in the past year alone when astronauts in the international space station had to take cover when debris came too close.
He also sharply criticized China for its 2007 anti-satellite test that destroyed an aging weather satellite, creating thousands of pieces of dangerous debris while also unnerving many nations who fear the militarization of space.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama recently pledged to pursue development of an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. Rose said the aim is to encourage transparency in missions as well as develop “rules of the road” to avoid collisions and discourage irresponsibility. Earlier this year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began negotiations with the European Union and other spacefaring nations on such a code.
Rose reassured the audience, however, that the U.S. government would keep private enterprise and national security interests fully involved in the development of any code. An international code would not be a legally binding treaty nor would it impose legal obligations on the United States, Rose added.
As impossible as it was to anticipate such a need back in the days of Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn, Rose said the time for global cooperation to make space safe has come.