It is quite clear
that our global leaders at the current G-8 meetings face significant challenges. The front burners of the global political stove feature many
“hot” global issues to discuss. Global warming, warfare and hostilities in Iraq and the Middle East; genocide, starvation and poverty in Darfur and beyond. This does not even include spiraling energy costs, prospective pandemics and other such super critical issues that clearly crowd out space-related concerns. The leaders from Washington
, Moscow, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin
elsewhere would have to look very hard to find a slight blip on the screen that represents concerns about effective safety for space travel, control of orbital debris
or other hazards from outer space. These are
issues and ones for the distant future. Right? Well, in a word: No. Actually it is time that global leaders understand that
is far from a detail to be neglected. We in the aerospace industry need to get out our space megaphones and explain a few facts.
Yes, there are important space issues political leaders need to know about. The problem with growing orbital debris
now also is taking on scary proportions. The Chinese anti-satellite
test in January
that destroyed the Fengyun 1C meteorological satellite led to the largest single source of orbital debris since the start of the space era. This missile test generated some 2,000 debris elements exceeding 5 centimeters
in size –
large enough to crack a space shuttle window or damage the international space station
Then, in February,
there were four other new sources of major space debris. The break-up of two Chinese satellites and of two Russian large launch vehicle components added hundreds more pieces of debris
Corrective action could have prevented the
spread of much of this debris. The
United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space
has had this problem under
since 1994, but the problem
only has grown worse in the last 13 years. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination
Committee finally has
come up with seven “Guidelines” to address the problem, but these guidelines, based on international consensus, are so vague,
riddled with loop-holes and legally non-binding
that their ultimate adoption represents even less than a baby-step of progress.
Meanwhile hundreds of billions of dollars of space assets from communications to spy satellites are increasingly at risk. GPS navigation satellites, among others, are used not only to target missile firings but also to allow planes to take off and land all over the globe are at risk.
From the Internet to global electronic funds transfer, from close satellite monitoring of hurricanes and tornados to our defense and civilian space assets, we who live in a modern technological society increasingly are in serious danger. And the problem is not just with man-made orbital debris. The Planetary Society and others emphasize that thousands of near
Earth objects need to be catalogued
and monitored for possible catastrophic damage to human civilization.
The next five years will bring a surge in commercial space activities. Space tourism, high-altitude platforms for communications, robotic freighters that travel above civilian airspace, sub
orbital flights as a means of supersonic transport, even space hotels – all this and more is possible. Or maybe not.
Governments, in an effort to promote commercial space, are tending to keep their regulatory controls to a minimum. Yet an inadequately controlled environment for space with no one in charge could negatively impact military and defense space systems, space tourism and the space hotel business, and even potentially be dangerous for aviation passengers. The UN study groups that need 15 years to address such problems might
be too slow.
The newly formed International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS), which
held its second global conclave May 14-16 in Chicago,
has organized a group of aerospace industry experts and academic scholars to start determining
where aviation safety begins and ends, and whether international aviation rules could be extended to address some basic space safety rules. This group has raised a red flag. The IAASS studies show that orbital debris issues now put at risk hundreds of billions of dollars of vital infrastructure key to daily lives of a significant part of our planet’s population. Critical parts of U.S., European or other countries’ space defense and military communications could be destroyed. There are potential but real hazards that exist for space shuttle flights, sub
orbital space tourist flights, the international space station, communications, remote sensing, meteorological and scientific satellites as well as critical navigational and defense surveillance satellites.
The IAASS white paper, “An ICAO for Space?
emphasizes the importance and urgency of creation and implementation of international space safety standards and procedures through a permanent and competent international organization like the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), or by expanding ICAO’s mandate to cover space safety
Space systems and space assets provide a much more vital role in sustaining our global economy, assisting in our monitoring of global warming and environmental hazards, protecting national security
and facilitating new space commercialization opportunities than ever before. The time to recognize some of these very real problems and face up to the need for effective planetary and space safety is now. Anyone who wants to stay plugged into the problems -and more importantly be aware of creative new solutions should
go to www.iaass.org.
Joseph N. Pelton, is the former dean of the International Space University, chairman of the IAASS Academic Committee and Director of the Space and Advanced Communications
at George Washington University. TommasoSgobba
president of the
. Nicholas Bahr is the
chair of the IAASS Committee Studying New Regulatory Approaches to Space Safety. Ram Jakhu is
professor, McGill Institute of Air and Space Law and an IAASS board member