It’s no secret: Things are getting complicated in space. Late last year, the upper stage of a rocket that first overshot the Moon in 1966 whizzed its way back to Earth’s orbit, adding to the nearly 8,000 metric tons of space debris—over half a million individual pieces—circling the planet. Over the last 12 years, the United States, Russia, China, and India have each tested anti-satellite weapons capable of destroying the space-based infrastructure that forms the warp and woof of our modern economy. Add to this the inauguration of the US Space Force, which recently deployed its first troops abroad in Qatar; the privatization of space typified by companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin; and the return of moon rocks to Earth by China’s Chang’e-5 probe, which promises to spark a renewed international debate about space resources. One needn’t be a headline gobbler to notice that the pace of change in space is reaching (pun intended) cosmic proportions.
In no area of space politics is this complexity more dangerous than in US-Russia relations, which, particularly since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, have cooled to the point that some pundits are talking of a new Cold War and indeed a second space race. Consider events just over the last year. In May 2020, NASA launched two astronauts to the international space station using domestic technology for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era, severing a nine-year dependence on Russian lift vehicles. At the same time, the agency announced the “Artemis Accords,” an international agreement intended to establish basic ground rules for space activities; Russia, suspicious of American commercial interests on the Moon and conceiving of the entire lunar program as “too US-centric,” declined to participate. And in February, April, and December, Russia tested direct-ascent and co-orbital anti-satellite weapons. The tests were only the latest manifestation of increased military activity in space, which the Pentagon considers “a war-fighting domain.”
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