Fretting over space junk is universal among people who care about satellites or space travel. Even partisans in Congress agree that it is a problem. “The scientists who predicted climate change started the same way I did,” [space-junk expert and astrophysicist Don] Kessler muses. “They were thinking about what would happen if we keep dumping things into the air around us. I was thinking about what happens if we do it in space.”
Yet space pollution talks have not been poisoned by political division.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California and a climate change skeptic (“CO2 is not a pollutant,” he has opined), has grimly warned that space pollution is “getting to a point of saturation now, where either we deal with it or we will suffer the consequences.” Donna Edwards, his Democratic colleague from Maryland, thinks Congress should devote more money to tracking the detritus.
A plan to clean up space is held back by different kind of political paralysis than partisanship. In the United States, three separate agencies handle licensing for various aspects of a commercial satellite launch. Another set of rules governs military activities, with yet another for civilian government research. Who has authority to enforce rules or mete out punishment is murky. Moreover, some Defense Department satellite orbits are classified, as is the reason the department deployed an anti-satellite weapon of its own in 2008 after China’s test the previous year. Any discussion about space regulation, such as one held during a meeting of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in May, is filled with bureaucratic verbs that end in -ize (legitimize,compartmentalize, theorize). Too much remained unknown, lawmakers concluded, so they weren’t “ready to legislate yet.”