Space Council Condemns Russian ASAT Test, DOD Calls for End To Debris-Creating Tests

Space Council Condemns Russian ASAT Test, DOD Calls for End To Debris-Creating Tests

The first meeting of the Biden-Harris Administration’s National Space Council covered a lot of ground, but a main focus was Russia’s recent antisatellite test and the resulting debris that is imperiling satellites in low Earth orbit, not to mention the seven crewmembers aboard the International Space Station.

Vice President Kamala Harris at the National Space Council meeting, U.S. Institute for Peace, Washington, DC, December 1, 2021. Photo credit: NASA

In her opening remarks, Vice President Kamala Harris criticized the test, which has created at least 1,700 pieces of trackable space debris.

“By blasting debris across space, this irresponsible act endangered the satellites of other nations, as well as astronauts in the International Space Station.”

She and other Council members stressed the need for establishing international norms of behavior to ensure the safe and sustainable use of space, citing NASA’s Artemis Accords as an example of norms for civil space exploration. Wendy Sherman, Deputy Secretary of State, called the Accords “this generation’s recommitment to the principles of the Outer Space Treaty.” Thirteen countries have signed so far and Harris said the Presidents of France and Mexico each indicated they will sign during her recent visits to those countries.

“As activity in space grows, we must reaffirm, yes, the rights of all nations and we must demand responsibility from all space-faring nations.”

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks went further, directly calling for an end to debris-generating tests. DOD “would like to see all nations agree to refrain from antisatellite weapons testing that creates debris, which pollutes the space environment, risks damaging space objects and threatens the lives of current and future space explorers.”

The Soviet Union/Russia, the United States, China and India are the only countries so far that have conducted debris-generating antisatellite tests. The only such U.S. test was in 1985, although in 2008 it destroyed one of its own satellites not as a test but because it had malfunctioned and reentering intact would have posed a hazard to people on the ground (Operation Burnt Frost.)

The Secure World Foundation (SWF) maintains a publicly available spreadsheet of all debris created by antisatellite tests over the decades and how much is still in orbit as part of its work advocating for space sustainability. SWF’s Washington Office Director Victoria Samson told that the Space Council’s emphasis on the topic, especially the need for norms of behavior, across a broader set of agencies as a positive development. “I’m used to hearing people from State and DoD and even Commerce talk about that, but Transportation? National Security Council?  That indicates that this administration is prioritizing this effort, which of course is something that SWF has been urging for some time.”

Jake Sullivan, Natonal Security Adviser to the President, at the National Space Council meeting, December 1, 2021. Screengrab.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the National Security Council will work closely with the National Space Council to coordinate U.S. activities “to strengthen global governance for space” because if “irresponsible and dangerous debris-generating weapons testing” continues, “we risk allowing military activities in space to undermine the peaceful uses of space by all.”

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg revealed that his Department will be stepping up its own actions to limit the creation of new space debris by commercial launches. The FAA, which is part of DOT, promotes, facilitates and regulates commercial space launch and reentry. Buttigieg said next spring they will propose new orbital mitigation guidelines for commercial launch services companies “to make sure we’re not creating unnecessary debris that would inhibit future space operations” and “want to explore policy that will limit the non-functional items that are allowed into space in the first place.”

Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo at the National Space Council meeting, Washington, DC, December 1, 2021. Screengrab.

The mushrooming population of space debris is a growing worry to operators of satellites for civil, commercial and national security purposes. The Trump Administration assigned the Department of Commerce (DOC) to take responsibility for Space Situational Awareness and Space Traffic Management for the civil and commercial sector, relieving DOD of that task so it can focus on its own requirements. The Office of Space Commerce in NOAA, which is part of DOC, began work on an Open Access Data Repository (OADR) to merge government and commercial data on space objects and make it accessible to satellite operators.

Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of Senators wrote to Harris and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo urging them to step up that effort, which has slowed since the change in administrations.

Raimondo said today the Russian test was a “wake up call for all of us, and its potential impact on space safety and sustainability highlight the importance of the work we’re doing in the Office of Space Commerce” that will “support space traffic coordination.” She said the office was working on a prototype system “as requested by Congress” and “we are now deeply involved in the process of preparing for an operational system” that would be ready in “the next several years.”

Harris added later than Raimondo will develop a “plan of action to accelerate the development of space traffic management services,” but did not set a deadline for that to be completed.

Several other participants weighed in on the topic of establishing norms and space traffic management. Harris tasked her Space Council staff with building an “overarching plan to synchronize and coordinate these rules and norms as we go forward.”

The other two topics for the meeting were STEM education and climate change. Each of the Council members or their representatives spoke on one of the three topics rather than giving a broader report on all their space-related activities.

Today President Biden signed an Executive Order expanding the membership to include the Secretaries of Agriculture, Education, Labor and the Interior, and the National Climate Advisor. The total membership now is 20 departments, agencies and White House offices. Eighteen were present today or represented by deputies. Only Assistant to the President for Economic Policy Brian Deese and Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy Susan Rice were not there or otherwise represented.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris
  • Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (substituting for Secretary Antony Blinken)
  • Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks (substituing for Secretary Lloyd Austin III)
  • Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland
  • Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
  • Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo
  • Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy Raj Nayak (substituting for Secretary Martin Walsh)
  • Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg
  • Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm
  • Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona
  • Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas
  • Deputy Director for Management of the Office of Management and Budget Jason Miller (substituting for Acting Director Shalanda Young)
  • Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines
  • Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy Alondra Nelson (substituting for Eric Lander)
  • Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Jake Sullivan
  • Assistant to the President and National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy
  • Commander, U.S. Space Command Gen. James Dickinson (substituting for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley)
  • Administrator of NASA Bill Nelson

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson was called on to speak about STEM education and in his brief remarks managed to work in references to the Artemis program. The room was decorated with large posters that appeared to be from NASA, including one of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft stacked at Kennedy Space Center.

Setting for the National Space Council meeting at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, DC, with large space-themed posters. December 1, 2021. Vice President Harris is at the lecturn. Photo credit: NASA

Pointing to the SLS/Orion poster, Nelson rhetorically asked how it relates to STEM.

“Just look at the sparkle in the eyes of the kids when the topic of space and spaceflight opens up. It opens their little minds into wanting to get involved.  NASA …. has paid interns and fellowships. We get them in, we have them work with the NASA professionals, they bend hardware, they write code, … 30% of our interns come to work for NASA.  STEM is so important, and it is not only a direct cause, it is also a result of our space program.”

Harris asked the Office of Science and Technology Policy to lead an effort to determine how space can be used to inspire new STEM students and how to reduce barriers to entering and staying in the space workforce. In addition, the National Security Council and the National Space Council will work together to examine the potential to modernize the National Defense Education Act in a way to develop “a skilled space workforce to do a number of things including strengthen our national defense.”

Gina McCarthy, National Climate Adviser, at the National Space Council meeting, December 1, 2021. Screengrab.

Climate change is a major focus for the Biden Administration. Harris repeatedly referenced her recent visit to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center where she released the first image taken by the most recent Landsat satellite, Landsat 9, launched in September to continue an almost 50-year record of data from its predecessors.

The members who were just added to the Space Council represent many users of satellite data for studying or responding to the effects of climate change. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, for example, said satellites like Landsat allow farmers to “utilize climate-smart agricultural practices” like precision agriculture. National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy enthused that “satellite-supplied data has been critical to confirm the true extent of the climate crisis we’re facing” and “thanks in part to satellites, both the federal government and commercial industries, we have more data than ever before about the climate crisis.”

Harris’s focus is ensuring easy access to satellite data and tools to analyze it. She asked McCarthy’s climate policy office, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Space Council staff to work together to establish a “baseline of available space data and decision-making tools that are needed to tackle the climate crisis” and provide it to “all communities, with a particular awareness of those who have not historically” had access to it.

Adm. James Ellis (Ret.), chair of the Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group, wrapped up the meeting by giving a summary of the UAG’s activities since it was created under the previous Administration. No announcements were made about its current membership.

Although the hour-and-a-half meeting focused on just the three topics, hours earlier Harris released a Space Priorities Framework that identifies a broader set of priorities and actions to address them.

  • Maintaining a robust and responsible U.S. space enterprise by maintaining leadership in space exploration and space science, advancing the development and use of space-based Earth observation capabilities, fostering a favorable policy and regulatory environment for commercial space, protecting space-related critical infrastructure, defending U.S. national security interests, and investing in the next generation, and
  • Preserving space for current and future generations by strengthening global governance of space activities, bolstering space situational awareness sharing and space traffic coordination, and prioritizing space sustainability and planetary protection.


This article has been updated.

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