Though vast, space is a delicate, multilateral domain where stability requires cooperation and partnerships enabled by safe space operations. Space safety is a non-zero-sum game; the actions or intentions of any participant can affect outcomes for all. 

In November 2021, Russia deliberately destroyed its own satellite in low Earth orbit, exposing the fragility of international norms for operating safely in space. We are still contending with this debris field today amid new concerns about Russia’s comportment relative to established norms of behavior in space. This underscores the vulnerability of a space ecosystem whose continuing evolution is driven largely by a vibrant commercial marketplace that redefines daily what is achievable. Large satellite constellations, commercial crew launches and space tourism are now realities. And in February, we witnessed the first-ever landing of a commercial spacecraft on the moon. 

Many in the industry work tirelessly to stay ahead of all this change, though several important space safety gaps remain for us to address. By collaborating through an integrated, proactive approach, a unified United States space enterprise can keep pace with growth in the space economy while making headway on high-priority space safety challenges, including the following:

Dedicating resources to space safety infrastructure 

National strategy aims to assert U.S. leadership in space traffic coordination and management. This requires sound space situational awareness (SSA) data to encourage safe space operations. Therefore, it is critical that Congress continue to support the Office of Space Commerce as it ramps up its capabilities to facilitate this.

Additionally, the future of the Federal Aviation Administration’s human spaceflight regulatory moratorium, or learning period, remains a top consideration for members of the space community working on safety issues. Though this moratorium may again be extended, the industry can continue to tackle safety challenges proactively. Implementing a future-proof safety framework and safety-case approach to human spaceflight today can keep the enterprise prepared for future spaceflight activities, technologies, destinations and needs.

Developing safety capabilities and policies for cislunar space

Three dozen nations including the U.S. have signed the Artemis Accords, agreeing to a set of shared principles for the safe and peaceful exploration of cislunar space and beyond. The agreement marks this region of growing interest as a priority, as do national-level strategies and the commercial and international space communities that are planning more than 100 landings on the moon through the end of the decade. 

Though many space actors have entered the cislunar regime in a spirit of collaboration and coordination, we will need scalable safety capabilities in cislunar space to match the forthcoming volume of activity there. Extending the nation’s geocentric SSA functions into a cislunar architecture would allow the U.S. to deliver space domain awareness in the region and enable better collision risk assessment and collision avoidance capabilities. We must also review cislunar disposal needs and methodologies to bring capabilities and policies into consistency with cislunar operations. 

Credit: The Aerospace Corporation.

Developing in-space human rescue capabilities

The tragic loss of the crew of the Titan underwater submersible in 2023 brought new focus on the potential need for rescuing astronauts and tourists in the similar extremes of space. Today’s space travelers might not have access to a timely rescue in an emergency; neither the U.S. government nor commercial spaceflight providers currently have in-space rescue plans or capabilities to aid distressed spacecraft in low Earth orbit — or anywhere else in space. 

Our industry anticipates both the volume and frequency of human spaceflight to continue to grow. Plugging the in-space rescue gap is a hard problem worthy of our immediate attention before a rescue is needed, not after. Too often, safety improvements only materialize after a catastrophic event. Before such an incident occurs in space, we can work to establish common docking systems for spacecraft and integrate rescue plans into launch plans. 

Facilitating broad, comprehensive safety collaboration

It is critically important to consider all the ways in which our actions in one space arena might impact other aspects of safety. Since no one entity controls space or owns sole responsibility for our shared challenges, broad collaboration is needed. And while an impressive array of associations and consortia are already hard at work addressing safety challenges, the aforementioned space safety capability and policy gaps are just a handful of the many that remain unresolved. 

In April 2021, The Aerospace Corporation launched its Space Safety Institute during a meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, offering a global vision for fostering the long-term sustainable use of outer space.

We need a holistic, integrated, enterprise-level approach to address space safety gaps. To do this, we must maximize data sharing, possibly by establishing standards and databases for storage and sharing. A shared safety lexicon would help harmonize communications and enable collaboration on standards, norms of behavior and policy for the entire community. We may also need additional collaborative infrastructure, such as a dedicated space safety consortium, to focus and align our efforts.

Bridging these gaps and enabling comprehensive, interoperable approaches to space safety will require the commitment of all within the industry. No less than the long-term usability and economic viability of outer space is at stake. 

Uma Bruegman is executive director of the Space Safety Institute at The Aerospace Corporation, a national nonprofit that operates a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) for the U.S. space enterprise.

This article first appeared in the April 2024 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Uma Bruegman is executive director of the Space Safety Institute at The Aerospace Corporation, a national nonprofit that operates a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) for the U.S. space enterprise.