Will November 15th, 2021, go down in history as the day the first shot was fired starting the first war in space. Or will it go down as the first example of how a space program can shoot itself in the foot without gravity? Both are possible as news spreads that the Russian military destroyed one of its own satellites with a missile on November 15th … and the resulting debris put the International Space Station in such danger that the crew members were forced to take shelter in the attached space capsules. This comes just days after the ISS was moved to avoid colliding with an old piece of a Chinese rocket. Are any – or all – of these events related? Is this a first shot, a first shot-in-the-foot … or something else? Something worse?
“Earlier today, due to the debris generated by the destructive Russian Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test, ISS astronauts and cosmonauts undertook emergency procedures for safety.
“Like Secretary Blinken, 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.
“All nations have a responsibility to prevent the purposeful creation of space debris from ASATs and to foster a safe, sustainable space environment.
“NASA will continue monitoring the debris in the coming days and beyond to ensure the safety of our crew in orbit.”
That statement from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson says it all from the U.S. side, but both crews were affected – The Guardian and Spaceflight Now reported that most of the NASA and ESA crew members moved to the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and the two Russian cosmonauts and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei boarded the Soyuz spacecraft on the Russian side. In response, ROSCOSMOS tweeted:
“The crew of the International Space Station regularly performs work in accordance with the flight program. The orbit of the object, due to which the crew was forced today according to standard procedures to transfer to spaceships, moved away from the ISS orbit. The station is in the “green zone”.”
That “Move along … nothing to see here” comment belittles the reality that a Russian missile exploded a defunct satellite into over 1500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris in the direct path of the ISS, which was reportedly in danger on two orbital passes before getting the ‘all clear’. In a strong statement, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said “We will work with our allies and partners in different ways to make clear that the United States, that the international community is not going to tolerate this kind of irresponsible behavior,” but will not take any action “today.”
Space.com reports that the U.S. Department of Defense was not made aware of this test ahead of time, which has now been identified as an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test destroying a Kosmos-1408 satellite.
The question is … was this an intentional provocation or a dangerous screw-up? With the problems on the oxygen-leaking Russian side of the ISS, the on-again-off-again plans for a Russian space station, and political tensions on the ground, this is a troubling situation.
The verdict on November 15, 2021, is far from being decided.
By Paul Seaburn