Russian weapons test endangers the International Space Station
The Russian military tested an ASAT weapon recently, successfully destroying a dead satellite, called either Tselina-D or Cosmos 1408, launched almost 40 years ago, according to Ars Technica. The test created a debris field that directly endangered the International Space Station, including, ironically, two of Russia’s own cosmonauts. The crew of the ISS was forced to take emergency measures, closing hatches between some of the space station’s modules, putting on space suits and boarding the attached Russian Soyuz and American SpaceX Crew Dragon. The ISS crew would be ready to quickly evacuate the orbiting space lab in the event of a catastrophic collision.
The Russian weapon test elicited a sharp response from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, “I’m outraged by this irresponsible and destabilizing action. With its long and storied history in human spaceflight, it is unthinkable that Russia would endanger not only the American and international partner astronauts on the ISS, but also their own cosmonauts. Their actions are reckless and dangerous, threatening as well the Chinese space station and the taikonauts on board.”
The Russian ASAT test created a debris field of at least 1,500 separate pieces that can be readily tracked and likely hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces. The results of the test will pose a hazard to space navigation for years, perhaps decades to come.
The Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement through the TASS news agency pushing back against American condemnation of the test stating, “the fragments emerging after the defunct Tselina-D Soviet-era satellite was destroyed during the tests will not pose any threat to orbital stations, satellites and space activity.”
Why did Russia conduct the test, which it must have known would be provocative? One theory suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin is treating other space powers like the United States and China much as a Mafia don would deal with rivals: Nice space program you have. It would be a pity if anything happened to it.
That President Biden makes Jimmy Carter seem Churchillian in comparison is an added incentive for Russia to misbehave.
Russia is a declining power. Even during the glory days of the Soviet Union, the country suffered from an economy that was not as robust as it could be and a culture of graft and corruption. Things have gotten steadily worse with the fall of the USSR and the contraction of Russian power.
The diminishment of Russia as a superpower is no more vividly revealed than in its space activities. In times past, Russia’s space program was so robust that it was considered a threat to the free world. Soviet space firsts such as Sputnik and the flight of the first human being in space, Yuri Gagarin, inspired President John F. Kennedy to launch the race to the moon, which America won on July 20, 1969.
Fast forward about 50 years, and the Russian space program consists of little more than its partnership with the West on the International Space Station. The emergence of an American commercial space sector, as exemplified by SpaceX, and the Artemis return to the moon program has become bitter gall and wormwood for Putin. Russia has been reduced to entering into an alliance with China as a decidedly junior partner to try to maintain itself as a space power.
Thus, the Russian ASAT test can be seen as a cry for attention as well as a not so veiled threat. The test is meant to give a message, that yes, Russia still matters. Sadly, it shows that Russia matters only for its capacity to make trouble rather than for what it can contribute.
How should the United States and her allies respond to the Russian provocation? The establishment of a treaty prohibiting kinetic ASAT weapons would be ideal. Unfortunately, no evidence exists that Russia or any other country would willingly enter into such an agreement or would not cheat if they did.
Thus, the only response would be to task the U.S. Space Force to start cleaning up space debris, a problem even before the Russian ASAT test, and to defend American and allied space assets against such weapons. If Russia or any other country proposes to make space a war fighting venue, the only proper answer is: Bring it. Potential enemies will only lose such a contest if the United States joins it with a will.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
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