As space becomes more crowded, there’s little hope for new international rules to make it safer.
By Patrick Tucker, Technology Editor
May 6th, 2021
Debris from a crashing Chinese rocket hurtling toward Earth and a Russian projectile-shooting spy satellite are the two examples of a big problem: too few rules governing how nations behave in space. Wednesday on Capitol Hill, lawmakers pressed Biden administration officials on what the United States can do to set some hard boundaries. The answer: The United States wants norms in space, but don’t expect anything legally binding anytime soon.
There are some internationally agreed upon rules for how nations can use space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty says countries can’t place weapons of mass destruction in space. But the treaty doesn’t prohibit putting other weapons in space, shooting at satellites with anti-satellite rockets, or launching large objects that will come crashing back down to Earth in lots of pieces with unpredictable trajectories.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn, opened the hearing by lamenting a lack of U.S. leadership in establishing rules to curb such behavior. “It seems we’ve given up on the idea of ropes or any punishment. But we’re just going for spider webs instead. Is that the best we can do?”
Answered the State Department’s Bruce Turner, “I think we’re trying to make the best out of what is possible at this given moment in time.” That does not “exclude the possibility of legally binding treaties down the road, but that’s not where we are, given the kinds of competition posed by Russia and China.”
The United States instead will reach out to like-minded countries to establish non-legally binding norms, said Turner, who leads the department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. That in turn could “create peer pressure” on countries like China and Russia to align with what other countries are doing. “And maybe over time develop more far-reaching measures,” he said.
All of that suggests the United States and other nations are far away from establishing a new treaty on space behavior. During his testimony yesterday, Turner brought up the downsides of such agreements.
“The advantage of a treaty is that it’s a legal obligation…so you could argue a violation is more straightforward. Except if you’ve ever worked with a lawyer, you know one of the things you get into is these very difficult and complicated interpretations of what the treaty actually says.”
He said the lack of a legally binding mechanism to punish bad behavior in space “does not mean you can’t call someone out for violating that norm and you can’t take potential action if an actor is not complying.” He argued that when countries like China and Russia take unsafe actions in space, they could face diplomatic and public pressure through social media.
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., took exception to Turner’s reasoning. “Hoping one of our adversaries will be shamed on social media does not seem like an effective strategy here,” he said.