Space Traffic Control: The Next Free Global Utility?

Posted: April 4, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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Space Traffic Control: The Next Free Global Utility?

By Mark Stout

Note: this article originally appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff.

Depending how you look at it, the United States has been the world’s policeman somewhere between two (the dissolution of the Soviet Union) and seven (our entrance into World War II) decades.  Today, we are also humanity’s foremost space watcher and may even be on our way to serving as the world’s space traffic cop.  So… is this a good thing?


Space traffic control begins with a space surveillance capability and a variety of dedicated, contributing, and collateral radar and optical systems surveil outer space.  These sensors, along with an associated command and control system, form a space surveillance network.  Today there are over 21,000 space objects (that is, satellites, manned systems, and debris) being tracked.  Space situational awareness (SSA) uses space surveillance information (which is largely concerned with observing what’s in space) to create a more useful understanding and awareness of what’s going on in space. 

Under the auspices of the Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Sharing Program, first begun in 2004 as a pilot program to help ensure safe operations in space, U.S. Strategic Command provides SSA information to commercial and foreign nation “partners” within a limited set of conditions.  This SSA information includes basic orbital parameters (called two-line element sets), as well as launch support and conjunction assessments based on a “High Accuracy Catalog.”  Could the SSA Sharing Program evolve into in something more complex, like a space traffic control system? 

A space traffic control system would exceed SSA in ambition, benefit, and cost.  If mature, it would provide a way to actively monitor, direct, and redirect space objects in order to help prevent them from running into one another.  Such a space traffic control system would help mitigate the risk of collisions in space and while mitigating risk is a good thing (all other things being equal, which they never are) the cost of such mitigation much be balanced against the risks.

That’s because space traffic control will be complex and is certain to require plenty “more”: more sensors; a more robust, capable, and connected SSA network; more computational power; better predictive software; more analysts; and, more cooperation and rule-following (for example, which maneuverable space object has the right of way?).  Low earth orbits, sun synchronous orbits, and the geostationary belt are the parts of space that are most useful and also the most concerning.  For the Air Force, the greatest risk may be that “leadership,” which is normally code for ‘pay for,’ in space traffic control could well become a (wait for it…) funding black hole. 

How so?  Consider the Global Positioning System as a point of departure.  While GPS is sometimes touted as a “free global utility,” economic theory holds that there is no such thing as free: at some point, someone has to pay, either with their time or with their money.  So while it may be free to those in, say Syria, to use the GPS signal, the activities necessary to create and sustain such a capability are borne by the United States.  And in that regard, the President’s Fiscal Year 2012 Budget calls for the Air Force to spend $1.462 billion for GPS in addition to about $200 million of other federal government GPS related funding.  Global: yes.  Utility: yes.  Free: not.

Now this is not to say GPS isn’t important: it is exceedingly important.  But in fact, the extreme military benefits of GPS almost certainly pale in contrast to the civil and commercial applications, so much so that the UK is described as ‘dangerously reliant’ on GPS.  If the estimated 6 to 7 percent of the UK economy which is dependent on GPS also holds true in the United States, about a trillion dollars per year would be somehow touched by GPS.

The importance of GPS only serves to highlight the consequences of providing a “free” global utility: others will figure out how to take advantage of it and want more, even to the point of dependence.  Could a space traffic control system follow a similar path, with those profiting from the utility (that is, other nations and commercial space) benefitting perhaps disproportionately versus those who pay for it (the U.S.) to the point of dangerous reliance?

Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space said “…the SSA Sharing Program is evidence of the U.S. government’s commitment to provide SSA data to the world, free of charge, in order to enhance safe and responsible space operations and promote transparency.”  While it’s a noble sentiment, with SSA spending probably around $1B per year (parsing out the actual ongoing costs are difficult given one-time events, the continuing resolution(s), and SSA funding that’s blended with other programs) what are the limits of the government’s commitment?  And while we’re at it, how about the logical follow-on to the space traffic control mission–space debris removal–another area where the U.S. is looked to for “leadership”? 

With space traffic control, the U.S. government is likely to subsidize space risk-reduction with the benefits of the effort being largely privatized.  That is, other nations and commercial users get a free ride.  A poorly constrained U.S. government “commitment” in subsidizing others’ SSA, space traffic control, or space debris removal needs is simply not feasible and is fact inconsistent with one of the principles from the President’s National Space Policy which offers that space sustainability (in this case, fiscal space sustainability) is vital to our national interests.

Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at Air University’s National Space Studies Center and runs its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.


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