But outer Space
At least this far,
For all the fuss
Of the populace
Stays more popular
–Robert Frost, In the Clearing, 1962, pg. 97.
Originally titled “The Astronomer,” this six-line poem by Robert Frost was included in a seven-page booklet distributed to friends and colleagues at his eighty-fifth birthday celebration at the historic Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on March 26, 1959. When Frost blew out the candles on his cake in 1959, there had been less than fifty space launches worldwide, mostly of scientific and intelligence surveillance satellites (and a Soviet dog named Laika).
In the fifty-one years since Frost observed that the hype surrounding space did not match its exploration, there have been an additional 5,500 space launches of approximately 7,000 spacecraft. As a result, due to a combination of carelessness, willful negligence, poor planning, and mishaps, there is a lot of junk in space. This debris includes the upper stages of launch vehicles, disabled spacecraft, dead batteries, solid rocket motor waste, and refuse from human missions.
Presently, there are some 22,000 items in space with a diameter of over ten centimeters—or roughly the size of a softball—that are regularly tracked by existing resources and technology. In addition, there are approximately 300,000 other fragments of space junk that measure between one and ten centimeters, and over 135,000,000 that are smaller than one centimeter. Traveling at speeds of up to 29,000 miles per hour, any of the debris could damage operational spacecraft.
Space debris is an enormous problem that will only worsen as more and more countries utilize outer space for civilian, military, and scientific activities. Just weeks ago, a ten centimeter piece of debris, created by a Chinese anti-satellite missile test against an old weather satellite in 2007, threatened the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting approximately 200 miles above the earth. Although the American and Russian astronauts on board were not forced to evacuate to their Soyuz spacecraft, it echoed a similar incident in July 2011, when space debris missed the ISS by only 1,100 feet.
Today, I published a Policy Innovation Memo that calls on the Obama administration to endorse the European Union (EU) Code of Conduct for Outer Space as a critical step toward establishing an international code of conduct. In addition to the existing EU code provisions, the international code must require the timely notification of space launches, planned satellite orbital placements, scheduled space maneuvers, and a ban on the weaponization of space. As the leading spacefaring power, the United States is uniquely positioned to actively lead the development of an international code of conduct by working with other countries to safeguard space from the increasing threat of space debris.