By Weston C. Weber
On November 14th of last year, Russia deliberately destroyed one of its satellites as a test of a new anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). According to a US State Department press briefing, “this test has so far generated over fifteen hundred pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris.”
Space debris and the risks it poses to space security, safety, and sustainability are well known. Following the ASAT demonstration, the resulting debris clouds forced the seven people aboard the International Space Station to take shelter. In response, the U.S. Department of State called the test “reckless and irresponsible;” the EU deemed the test “destructive and highly destabilizing;” and several other foreign states further condemned the incident.
The ongoing outrage and condemnation of Russia’s lack of regard towards the space environment illustrates that the space industry and governmental bodies are aware of the problem. But words alone are not sufficient. There must be a shift in thinking and action that places sustainability at the forefront of space activity.
Across all sustainability issue areas (climate change, pollution, deforestation, space debris), the status quo has always been passive sustainability, or a laissez-faire approach to regulations and action. In space, policymakers and industry professionals believe limiting debris-creating actions or the general intention to prevent debris is enough to satisfy some sustainability benchmark. Russia’s irresponsible ASAT demonstration is an unmistakable example of how sustainability is nothing more than a secondary concern — and it is not the only example.
China’s ASAT test in 2007, the US ASAT test and mission in 1985 and 2008, and India’s ASAT test in 2019 all received the same condemnation and calls for restraint from the rest of the world. Given that these tests have continued, it is clear that these public rebukes have not resulted in meaningful policy change. It seems that meaningful action will always require too great an effort when sustainability is pushed to the sideline.
As seen through the backlash to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, there is a significant movement demanding strong action for sustainability across all industries and policy areas. The appetite for passive sustainability is gone. Thankfully, we are in the early stages of humanity’s exploration of space, and there is still time to prevent the cyclical degradation we see on the ground. Policymakers and industry officials must learn from mistakes on Earth and make sustainability an active and intentional practice in all space operations.
Like the term suggests, active sustainability demands that policymakers and industry professionals take an active role in space sustainability. There are many policy options for this goal. Internationally, it might manifest as a framework on space environmental management and sustainability, which addresses debris and resource utilization. Domestically, active sustainability could take the form of more rigorous licensing processes by agencies like the FCC and FAA. However, a paradigm shift will need to occur before these policies can become a reality. The paradigm shift needed to move sustainability to the forefront can start in three ways.
First, policymakers must agree on a timeline of specific actions and guidelines. It is important that the ideas and intentions policymakers and professionals have are translated into decisive actions with strict deadlines. It is no longer enough to pledge vague benchmarks and hide behind sentiments and rhetoric. Specificity allows space operators, like NASA or SpaceX, and the global community to measure and identify the progress being made and better predict where they need to go.
Second, space operators need to be transparent about what they are doing to practice sustainability in space. Transparency serves to hold states accountable to the global public and to build a system of norms through shared values. Specific action items, like benchmarks, are weak and there is no way to ensure that space operators are implementing them. Further, if countries are honest about how they are implementing sustainability in space operations, there is a greater chance that those values will spread in the industry. Partnered together, specificity and transparency can build an operator’s credibility among the public and within the industry.
Finally, active sustainability requires an understanding of and adherence to consequences. The credibility built by space operators should mean more than a report card for appeasing regulatory bodies and activists. This credibility should play a role in business deals and industry collaboration. Whether it is a launch service agreement, intergovernmental cooperation, or other form of partnership, space operators should consider the environmental credibility of their partner companies in all decisions.
There is a difference between consequences, as proposed here, and enforceability in other areas of space governance. Consequences place the onus on the space operators and industry and not on another intergovernmental body, where any response will likely linger. This final component of active sustainability requires each operator to put sustainability above the bottom line and consider consequences to the environment as a consequence for their business and space operations.
In practice, active sustainability may take the form of sustainability clauses in contracts and treaties between businesses and countries, with clear guidelines regarding end-of-life protocols, debris mitigation, and other sustainable practices. Countries would avoid partnerships with companies or other governments with bad sustainability records, similar to other business considerations.
Business as usual does not work. Passivity does not work. If we want to avoid bringing our environmental crisis with us into space, now is the time for active sustainability.
Weston C. Weber Brumley Graduate Fellow, Space Security, Safety, and Sustainability Program (Strauss Center for International Security and Law, The University of Texas – Austin), Master of Global Policy Studies Candidate (LBJ School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas – Austin)