Developments in International Space Debris Efforts Echo Short Story “Tethered”

My novelette “Tethered” seems to have to caught on to the latest developments in space debris mitigation and the political factors which go into international efforts related to such developments. Space Daily is reporting on space debris as a hot topic “getting hotter,” gathering international support from NASA, DOD, FAA, and the UN, while RIA Novosti reports similarly, addressing U.S. interest in breaking tensions with Russia. Both news stories resonate strongly with the events taking place in “Tethered.” Recently published in Analog Magazine of Science Fiction and Fact and a Semi-Finalist in the 2011 L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, the novelette tells the story of two astronauts employed by a powerful corporation to clear Earth orbit after a series of near-future diplomatic fall-outs have clogged Earth orbit with debris, rendering outer space an “impassable frontier.” The two are caught in the midst of a corporate and political skirmish involving China, their employer, a South Asian oil pipeline, and the U.N. Security Council.

Read up on the similarities between “Tethered” and Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Gravity.

Purchase ”Tethered” from Analog. Read about other works on the Publications page.

Credit: US Naval Research Laboratory
Credit: US Naval Research Laboratory

Let’s walk through the similarities one by one:

The Kessler Syndrome

Read more about the Kessler Syndrome here.

Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program
Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program

From Space Daily:

Instances of close conjunction events in those few highly congested orbital bands have increased dramatically in the past several years. For example, the frequency of potential encounter events between active satellites and large debris objects near active satellite constellations has reached a very high level.

Odds are that there will be another satellite/debris encounter sometime in the not-too-distant future. This could be tomorrow, or next month, or next year, or next decade. We don’t know when, but it will surely happen. When it does, several bad things may happen to an unfortunate satellite operator.

The first lines of “Tethered”:

In 1978, NASA astrophysicist Donald J. Kessler predicted that the quantity of artificial satellites orbiting Earth would reach a critical limit after which collisions became inevitable. One satellite would strike another at the dangerous speeds of Earth orbit—seven, eight kilometers per second—and the two would break into hundreds of pieces. These pieces would in turn collide with other satellites, generating a chain reaction of impact and debris. By some point, Kessler proposed, this orbiting shell of garbage would render spaceflight difficult if not impossible.

“Junkships” and “Debris Collection Spacecraft”:

Like “Tethered,” which occurs after “several years of international disputes led to the establishment of a small but sizable fleet of junkships,” Space Daily writes of a similar project for “Debris Collection Spacecraft.” The writers imagine “an ideal world…all nations and parties…contribut[ing]  to the creation of a massive new space effort”:

Let’s take one approach as an example. Start by developing a specially designed “Debris Collection Spacecraft.”

Each DCS could be capable of maneuvering and rendezvousing with one or more objects, but one at a time. Each object may be stored for later de-orbit, or fitted with an autonomous de-orbit unit that slows the object’s orbital speed. If each DCS is able to deal with four objects, assuming only eight objects need to be removed annually, the job will require two DCS missions each year.

This whole removal operation must be transparent to commercial, civil and security satellite operators. In order to be effective, the removal program needs to start almost immediately to insure objects are removed in time to avoid potential future collisions.

China, Russia, and the Facade of “World Peace”:

RIA Novosti reported on Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s remarks at the New Space 2013 conference on commercialized space in San Jose, California, making note of his call to work with other countries in the effort to mitigate debris. Rohrabacher mentioned Russia in particular, now that the country “is no longer a communist dictatorship and has been evolving in the right direction.” Of course, international cooperation is not without its caveats:

But Rohrabacher’s vision of nations working together excluded rising space power China, a country that the US congressman said should be sidelined from a team effort in space because of its poor human rights record and technology theft.

“As long as there isn’t more reform – any reform – in China, I don’t think it’s wise for us to be doing joint efforts and have working cooperation on technology projects with the world’s worst human rights abuser who has a history of stealing technology,” he said.

“But the other folks, we should and we have to, if we want to have a vibrant space program.”

Rohrbacher’s comments foreshadow almost precisely the dark future posited in “Tethered,” where calls for “international cooperation” ultimately result in a highly corporate, militarized, U.S.-centric control of the international stage — one which exclusively chooses to leave China out of the loop. One of the protagonists in “Tethered” harbors his own prejudices (“he can tell [the call is Chinese] by the muffled English, as if it’s coming out a grater”), while the the other finds solace in China’s place outside of a homogenized military-industrial complex which has stuck her in a financial and political rut (“Commie bastards, I love you dearly.”). In “Tethered,” it is this very call for “international corporation” under the guise of liberalization, democracy, and free markets (similar to Rohrbacher’s comments) — this inability to accept other cultures and forms of government and economy — which results in war, and which turns the “final frontier” into an impassable one.

Granted, Rohrbacher’s comments are not this extreme, but they are not a far cry from the political atmosphere of “Tethered.” Initial efforts in the story to address debris mitigation seek to unite:

Under the authority of world peace, the concepts of nationality, heritage, boundary, and place had begun to dissolve.

…but in the end this homogenization results in fall-out:

War, distrust, and enmity had warped outer space into an impassable frontier.

As Space Daily warns:

For all those who are concerned and interested in the space debris crisis, get smart on the space debris issues and possible solutions.

Science fiction does not aim to predict — “it is descriptive,” as Ursula K. LeGuin aptly put it. “Tethered” is a Murphy’s Law of near-future politics, of everything that could or might go wrong, not of what will probably occur. But hopefully it captures the concern we should feel about the safe progress of science and a peaceful future. The failure of governments and aerospace companies to resolve the escalating dilemma of the Kessler Syndrome without falling into the traps of unregulated, militarized space is dangerous, and is something which needs to be amended. Rather than carry with us the baggage of political, military, economic, and cultural antagonism, let’s make the final frontier a place to start fresh,

Purchase ”Tethered” from AnalogRead about other works on the Publications page.

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