On February 10th of this year a U.S. satellite that was part of the Iridium global communications network suddenly went silent. A dead Russian satellite had smashed into the U.S. satellite sending space debris everywhere.
While the media treated the incident like a road accident, the story should serve as a cautionary tale about how incredibly dependent modern life is on space. Heritage fellow James Carafarano writes in the DC Examiner:
For Americans, a day without space would look an awful lot like life in the 19th century.
For starters, you could kiss air travel goodbye. Today’s commercial flights are almost wholly dependent on Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation. And the GPS system is dependent on satellites.
Your morning weather report would be almost worthless without the feeds from space-based weather satellites. And, in most cases, your cell phone, credit cards, and ATM wouldn’t work very well without the space-based communications that support them.
Indeed, the entire global supply chain might grind to a halt. The shelves at the local Wall Mart would start looking bare very quickly.
Security would deteriorate quickly as well. Emergency services would be disrupted. People needing critical medical care or medicines might not get it in time. The military that protects us would be enfeebled, too—no strategic communications, no space-based intelligence, no early warning of ballistic missile threats.
So far, the new administration’s only response to this challenge has been to call for a treaty banning weapons in space. Treaties are hardly a panacea. Consider the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. A decade into it and membership in the Nuclear Powers Club has grown from six to nine—with Iran now knocking at the door to become Member #10.
Rather than seek paper promises of good behavior, the administration would do better to (1) commit to ensuring America’s access to space and (2) develop a better early-warning system that monitors threats to space-based assets.
For starters, they should move full speed ahead with a program like “Brilliant Eyes,” the space-borne sensors that would let us spot anything headed into space from anywhere on the earth. Knowing “what goes up” is a good way to protect us from “what comes down.”