Ray Williamson

Executive Director, Secure World Foundation

The Secure World Foundation has a broad agenda ranging from promoting space-based environmental monitoring to addressing potential threats posed by lurking asteroids. But the organization’s biggest focus these days is on protecting space against manmade threats like orbital debris and anti-satellite weapons.

These dangers have been highlighted by a number of events, most recently the in-orbit collision that destroyed an operational communications satellite owned by Iridium Satellite LLC. There also have been several less-publicized near misses – some involving debris left by China’s 2007 test of an anti-satellite weapon – that are reflective of an orbital environment that is becoming increasingly congested.

To advance its cause, the foundation works with governments, international organizations and the private sector to promote better space surveillance, practices that limit orbital debris, nonproliferation and agreements designed to reduce the chances of accidents or misunderstandings in space. The organization has been a big supporter of a so-called code of conduct for spacefaring nations.

Ray Williamson, the point person on the foundation’s efforts, says long-term space security – the ability to operate safely in space – is inextricably linked to the well-being of people on the ground. He notes that people around the world are dependent on space-based services now more than ever.

Williamson, previously a professor of space policy and international affairs at the
‘s Space Policy Institute, spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.

We’ve heard a lot of people over the years talk about the inevitability of warfare moving into the space arena, just as it did to the sea and air. Do you agree?

No, I don’t. I don’t think that’s necessary because the physics of space are against you. If warfare goes into space, then forget about our ability to use space for any of these beneficial purposes that we use it for. Our society, not just the military, but our whole civil society is very dependent on space activities and the more we invest in space activities the greater our dependence on space systems. So in my view, and the view of the Secure World Foundation, it’s to the benefit of the world to avoid conflict in space. You can have a battle in the middle of the ocean and it doesn’t affect much outside of that arena. But you can’t have a debris-causing battle in space without affecting everybody.

Is it counterproductive to call for a treaty banning space weapons when most experts agree that such a pact would be both unverifiable and unenforceable?

The problem with a sort of broad ban on space weapons is that it would be very, very difficult to negotiate, in part because of definitional problems, in part because countries – and not just the United States, but any country that depends on using satellite systems for military purposes – are concerned about losing some freedom of action in space.

Are the periodic calls by

for a space weapons ban at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament disingenuous?

It depends on your definition of that because we’ve interacted with a number of those folks at different conferences – and I’ve been on the podium with people either at the U.N. in
New York
or at the Conference on Disarmament at the U.N. in
– and on a personal level, they’re very serious. Now just how deeply that goes, how much are they following orders, and whether they really back it or not, I don’t know. They’re pretty good actors, if that’s the case. They’re very serious about that issue. But I would argue that there are other ways to start at it.

Such as?

We’re very supportive of the debris mitigation guidelines – that’s a bottom up kind of approach. We’re very supportive of putting together a set of best practices to help push other countries into developing their own set, taking that on and agreeing to debris mitigation guidelines, agreeing to no frequency interference, those kinds of matters. But if you add enough of those together it’s very worth looking to see if countries can agree on some rules that guide behavior.

The code of conduct you’ve talked about would include, among other things, a provision barring deliberate satellite interference. But isn’t jamming radio transmissions part and parcel of modern military operations?

As a matter of routine, the U.S. Air Force would not jam other satellites in orbit. But come wartime the self-defense clause in the U.N. charter would supercede this code of conduct.

There are existing international agreements on space activity that are routinely ignored today. Doesn’t that bode poorly for the code of conduct, which has no enforcement mechanism?

That’s part of the problem. It doesn’t. But states can be embarrassed by bad behavior.

In that regard, do you think

would think twice before conducting another anti-satellite test like the 2007 demonstration that created a major debris hazard in a heavily used belt of Earth orbit?

The individual Chinese that I’ve talked to over the last couple of years – and I’ve talked to a lot of them, and it almost invariably comes up – they’re embarrassed by this. Now, I haven’t been in discussions with the People’s Liberation Army folks, so they might have a different view of it, but you talk to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs folks or you talk to the China National Space Agency folks and so forth, if it comes up, they’re embarrassed.


United States
downed one of its own wayward satellites in 2008, saying the action was justified due to the threat posed by toxic fuel aboard the craft. Did you accept that explanation?

We have our doubts about that and about the advisability of that. The U.S. government should be applauded for making it very public and making sure there would be a limited debris field and that [the debris] would come back down, but from a standpoint of the international community, I can tell you from talking to a number of people overseas that they were very concerned because many, many, many, many people still saw it as an anti-satellite test.

Does the

United States
withhold too much orbital surveillance data due to national security concerns?

Yes, to answer you directly. Now, let me articulate that a little bit. I get a little tired of listening to people ask a very decent direct question like that and people talking around it, which happens a lot in Washington. The point is that the data that are released now aren’t good enough for other entities – it doesn’t matter who they are – to do what they call a conjunction analysis, to figure out which satellites might be in danger. If Iridium had taken these so-called TLEs – these two-line element sets, which is not very accurate information – and used that to perform the conjunction analysis for Iridium 33, they wouldn’t have gotten an answer that would have helped them. So the push right now is to open up that data set, and there are elements within and outside the Air Force who would like to see those made, not public necessarily, but put in a form that other operators around the world can use. Every satellite that is threatened threatens other satellites because of the potential debris cloud that’s created.

Don’t other spacefaring nations bear some responsibility here for monitoring the orbital environment and making that data available?

They should be doing more and in fact the European Space Agency (ESA) now has a program. We’ve had some small impact there in terms of helping Europe to see its need for this kind of space situational awareness program. It’s both orbital debris and space weather, and they’ve included near Earth objects in their thinking.

What’s your vision for an international space traffic management center?

Our vision is that there should be some international approach to this. We don’t have a position on how that should be set up. Our role is to promote that dialogue and to try different things and throw out different ideas. We have gone on record supporting an international civil space situational awareness system because we think that’s doable. And it can be separated from the military and national security interests, not just in the United States but in other countries as well.

Can you give an example of what your organization is doing to encourage countries to adhere to voluntary debris mitigation guidelines?

We’re involved in the process to write a set of best practices in space that then could be adopted by a whole set of countries. And one of the items in there is adhering to the guidelines.

Some countries, such as

, have been accused of being less than vigilant in their efforts to limit orbital debris. Has
made any measurable progress on this front?

Yes, they have. It’s slow, but that’s part of the issue of changing a country’s behavior. It took a long time in this country for the U.S. Air Force to agree to some of the NASA proposals for debris mitigation guidelines back in the 1990s. But they came around and are really behind it these days.