On November 15, 2021, seven astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) were ordered to take shelter because of the possibility of catastrophic collisions as the station passed through a cloud of debris. The astronauts remained in lifeboats while the ISS passed through the cloud multiple times.
The reported cause of the danger was a “debris-generating event” that U.S. Space Command later attributed to a kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) test conducted by Russia against one of its own defunct satellites. The test was subsequently confirmed by Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu.
Reactions from the United States were swift and condemnatory. U.S. Space Commander General James Dickinson called the weapons test a “deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations.” Pointing to the particular risk to astronauts, NASA in a formal statement called the test “reckless and dangerous,” while NASA administrator Bill Nelson tweeted that “Russia would endanger not only intl partner astronauts on the ISS but also their own cosmonauts.” Other states concurred. U.K. Space Command, for example, called the test “irresponsible.”
Debris generated by the dangerous Russian ASAT test caused ISS astronauts and cosmonauts to undertake emergency procedures for safety.
It's unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only intl partner astronauts on the ISS but also their own cosmonauts. https://t.co/8VKJxon9mW
— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) November 15, 2021
Astronauts and space governance
Astronauts remain enduring symbols of aspiration and achievement—not only for their home countries but the entire globe. In Heroes in a Vacuum: The Apollo Astronaut as Cultural Icon, historian Roger D. Launius details the careful curation of U.S. astronauts as celebrities, beginning with the Mercury Seven test pilots. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagurin, the first human to fly in outer space, became a global celebrity. China crafted a publicity campaign around Yang Lewei, China’s first taikonaut in space. And Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is one of the best known astronauts in the world.
The role of an astronaut also has a legal dimension. The Outer Space Treaty (Article V) refers to them as “envoys” of humankind, who are accorded special privileges and protections, including the right to assistance, rescue, and return from all states. They also act as envoys of international diplomacy. The famous handshake in space in 1975 between American astronaut Thomas Stafford and Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov symbolized the beginning of the Cold War thaw. The permanently crewed International Space Station remains an important symbol of unprecedented international cooperation in outer space.
Victims of failed governance
However, the growing vulnerability of astronauts in outer space also illustrates our collective failure to govern space so that it remains safe and accessible for all. While the impact of any action on the ISS is generally viewed as key to determining if that action can be deemed “responsible,” such an understanding has not halted tests that produce dangerous debris. NASA publicly condemned India’s 2019 ASAT test because it produced new debris that threatened the ISS, while India claimed that the test was safe. When NASA scientists claimed that the risk of debris puncturing the ISS has increased twofold because of the recent Russian test, Russia countered with its own analysis that showed that its test posed no threat to space activities.
Concern for the protection of astronauts is not limited to debris from weapons test. Most recently, China invoked the protection of astronauts under Article V of the OST in a note verbale to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) after two “close encounters” by satellites from the SpaceX Starlink constellation with the Tiangong space station caused the station to conduct “preventive collision avoidance control.” China argued that these encounters “constituted dangers to the life or health of astronauts onboard the China space station” and asked the UN to remind states parties of their obligations under the OST. The United States responded with its own note verbale in which it indicated that it would have warned China of any possible close encounter. Underlying this incident is a deep schism in common understandings about what counts as safe, and inadequate means of communication and coordination.
Spaceflight is inherently dangerous and always has been. But activities related to debris, weapons, and congestion produce unnecessary risk. Mitigating such risk will require sustained diplomatic action and cooperation. To get there, we might need to shift our focus from astronauts to astronomers.
Thinking like astronomers
Vulnerable astronauts in space put a human face on our collective governance failures. We need to see them and recognize the seriousness of the problem. But it is the rising chorus of astronomers who are telling us how to fix this situation and we need to listen to them just as closely, because astronomers remind us that space is for everyone.
The rapid proliferation of vast constellations of satellite systems in low Earth orbit is damaging the ability of astronomers – and the rest of us – to see the night sky or the galaxies beyond. This loss illustrates yet again how poor collective governance affects all of us as individuals.
The ability to observe and know about space is essential to science, traditional knowledge and practices, and backyard stargazers. When we lose this ability, to whatever extent, our capacity to explore and use space is diminished and threatened. We stand to lose any facility to conduct deep-space navigation, protect our planet from asteroids, and learn more about our Earth, our solar system, and the universe.
Astronomers are speaking up and working together to mitigate this loss. On February 2, the International Astronomical Union announced a new Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference. This centre will coordinate and unify international efforts to mitigate the negative impact of satellite constellations on the night sky and to develop and promote norms of best practice. These concerns will also appear on the agenda of COPUOS.
The conflict is not between satellites and stars. We need both. Astronomers are taking up the mantle of the less powerful to fight for something that could otherwise be lost, but doesn’t have to be. As with spaceflight safety and environmental sustainability, solutions require open dialogue and coordinated and collective action. The international astronomy community is showing us how to do this. We should follow their lead.
Photo: The famous handshake in space in 1975 between American astronaut Thomas Stafford and Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov symbolized the beginning of the Cold War thaw.