Space Waste: As Below, So Above


February 11, 2007


Browse in Commons Environment Waste

We humans tend to think that things would be better if only we could be some place else.  The alcoholic would stop drinking if only he could move to California, the laggard would be more productive if only he could be in another job. Perhaps the ultimate projection screen for this particular tendency is what is called “outer space.”  If only we could be out there, things would be different – ethereal, romantic.  Even war would be dramatic and archetypal, not the hell that it is down here.

But usually we find that we take ourselves with us, wherever we go.  The desk in the new office becomes as messy as the desk in the old one.  Some of the same issues arise in the second marriage as in the first (though perhaps we deal with them a little better.) Once up there, we find to our surprise that we are the same people we were down here.  Thus the headline in our local paper this week, “Space Junk May Spell Doom For Pricey Satellites.”  We are turning the heavens into a dump just as we did the earth. Who would have thought?

And who would have thought that the stuff we shoot up there would linger around like the garbage down here, instead of just disappearing? Almost three decades ago there were warnings of potential crashes; and worse, chain-reaction crashes, in which one object hits another which breaks into many pieces which in turn fly off and crash into others.  Now the potentiality has become a likelihood.

According to the New York Times story which was reprinted in our local paper, the federal government’s list of “detectable objects” (four inches wide or more) has reached 10,000.  That’s “critical spatial density,” or in more common parlance, critical mass.  The orbiting debris includes “dead satellites, spent rocket stages, a hand tool and junkyards of whirling debris left over from chance explosions and destructive tests.”  On earth we can recycle this stuff, some of it at least.  Up there it just keeps orbiting, until something else gets in its path.

That something could be a spacecraft or satellite, such as the one that carried your phone calls today.  Whether new or discarded, it could set off a chain reaction that could “expand for centuries, spreading chaos through the heavens,” the Times reports. Making matters worse, China recently tested an anti-satellite rocket that shattered an old satellite into hundreds of pieces.  Now those are whipping around and making a collision that much more likely — another version of rush hour on Route 101.

When are we going to learn?  Each time we make a mess we just skip along to the next thing with assurances it will be different. Automobiles, televisions, cell phones, the rest – all came with great promises of human betterment; and all have ended up dumping their respective muck into the air. Now we’ve pushed the muck up to the next level, and it is overheating, though in a different way than the last one did.

Some call this a “tragedy of the commons.”  Does anyone really think the result would be any better if corporations owned the sky?  What would stop them from creating celestial equivalents of the brown fields they created down here? Are they going to charge a toll for all the sunlight and warmth that passes through their space on its way to ours?  The tragedy is not of the commons but of the human.  The answer is a little wisdom and foresight — or was at least.  Now, with this dimension of space, it might be too late.

That might not be the worst thing.  If we run out of places to skip along to with a new mess, then we’ll have to face the need to clean up our act right where we are.  What we are down here we will be out there.  “Outer space?”  Where do we think we’ve been all this time anyway?