editorial | space junk

Cleaning up deadly debris

NEWT GINGRICH’S proposal for a privately funded outpost on the moon revived questions about this nation’s 21st-century space agenda — but not the most pressing one.

The most immediate issue about space is not technology, money, or aliens. It is governance. There is none. Under international rules, each country is responsible for its own space program. That was workable when only the United States and Russia were up in the air, but now 11 counties have the capacity to launch satellites. Countries may not be allowed to appropriate outer space, such as the moon, by fiat, but not many other rules govern the skies.

And it is a mess, literally, as space debris has become a very challenging issue with over 22,000 pieces floating out there ready to crash to earth. These include the remnants of batteries, motor waste, and even spent spacecraft, such as Russia’s Phobos-Grunt which re-entered the atmosphere in January off the coast of Chile. According to NASA, nearly 1.5 million additional pieces of small space junk threaten other spacecraft.


Several countries, including the United States, are working to develop collision warning measures and international standards for debris minimization. Additional safety and security standards are being proposed for independent space exploration. This is a good use of resources. There may be a private sector, as Gingrich imagines, to pay for space development. But before private initiatives expand into the worlds beyond, a less celestial effort to create international norms governing the skies must come first.