Strengthening Space Security: Advancing US Interests in Outer Space

By Pace, Scott | Harvard International Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Strengthening Space Security: Advancing US Interests in Outer Space


Pace, Scott, Harvard International Review


Fifty years ago, the Space Age was not yet five years old hut the broad outlines of US space interests were visible. The year 1962 saw the first US human orbital flight by John Glenn on a converted Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Telstar 1 demonstrated the first transatlantic television, telephone, and fax transmissions by an active satellite. The United Kingdom became the third country to operate a satellite with the US launch of Ariel 1. Later that year, both Telstar 1 and Ariel 1 were seriously damaged when the United States detonated a 1.4-megaton nuclear device 250 miles over the Pacific Ocean in what was titled the Starfish Prime test. The Glenn flight and the Starfish Prime test respectively represented the civil and military bookends of US space interests that were to shape international, commercial, and scientific space activities.

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Fifty years later, the United States is facing new challenges and opportunities in integrating its civil, commercial, and national security space interests in a dynamic global environment. Space activities today play critical roles in US national security, economic growth, and scientific achievements. The Global Positioning System (GPS) is an integral part of several critical infrastructures and enables functions ranging from survey and construction, to farming, finance, and air traffic management--not: to mention supporting US military forces worldwide. The International Space Station represents a unique collaborative partnership between the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan, and Russia. International space cooperation, space commerce, and international space security discussions could be used to reinforce each other in ways that would advance US interests in the sustainability and security of military and civil space activities.

The past five years have seen the emergence of new threats to US space activities, threats that are different from those of the Cold War and which have their own distinct dynamics. Some threats are intentional and others are accidental. In some cases, threats come from a known nation state while in others, it is impossible to attribute responsibility due to a lack of full "space situational awareness" to support intelligence needs.

In 2007, without prior notification, China tested a high altitude anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) against one of its old weather satellites. This test created tens of thousands of pieces of orbital debris and increased the risk of collision and damage to many satellites operating in low Earth orbit, including the International Space Station, for many years. In 2009, there was an accidental collision over the Arctic between a defunct Russian Kosmos communications satellite and an active Iridium communications satellite that added even more orbital debris to low Earth orbit. North Korea, faced with multiple UN sanctions, has continued developing ballistic missile capabilities under the guise of peaceful space launches. Iran continues to jam commercial satellite broadcasts in order to prevent foreign reports of domestic unrest from reaching its population. There have been reports of attempts at unauthorized access to US civil scientific satellites, e.g., Terra and Landsat in 2007 and 2008, but the source of these attempts has not been confirmed. Threats to the sustainability of space activities today come not from a single superpower but from a much more diverse group of actors whose motivations can range from deliberate to ambiguous and even accidental.

The global space community is a dynamic one with new capabilities and new entrants. Europe is building its own version of GPS, titled "Galileo," and has long been a leading supplier of international commercial launch services with its Ariane family of launch vehicles. China has flown several astronauts, becoming only the third country with independent human access to space. China is constructing a space laboratory and has demonstrated unmanned rendezvous and docking operations in preparation for a fully manned space station in 2020--about the time the International Space Station may be ending its operations. …

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