Just as the Coast Guard plays a variety of roles while also being able to support the military in wartime, a Space Guard could support civil space activities but also aid national defense. (credit: US Coast Guard)
by Anna Gunn-Golkin
Space is dangerous and difficult, but it will be a “trillion dollar industry sooner than people realize,” according to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.2 There is no existing international construct to defend property rights, prevent and react to crime, and support imperiled persons and vessels in space. In its mission to protect United States private citizens, commercial, and industrial interests, the United States Space Guard (USSG) will provide law enforcement, prevention, response, security, and traffic management. Just as the Coast Guard augments the Navy, the USSG will be trained and stand ready to support the Department of Defense’s needs in times of war.
The United States Space Guard (USSG) will stand watch, always ready to protect Americans and American property beyond the shore of our atmosphere. Inspired by the United States Coast Guard (USCG), its missions will be: law enforcement, prevention, response, space security operations, traffic management, and defense operations. A uniformed branch within a civilian department, the USSG will promote and regulate the space industry, just as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did for aviation. Furthermore, it will monitor the industrial base to “help ensure the availability of space-related industrial capabilities in support of critical government functions.”3
The Space Guard will be a law enforcement agency, enabling the “stable, peaceful environment… for commercial operations” that the US government envisions.4 It will work tirelessly to prevent legal infractions through its prevention program, and it will be ready to respond and enforce the laws when needed. As part of this duty, the USSG will take on all aspects of commercial space management licensing. Currently, American companies hoping to launch a commercial satellite into orbit need launch (and reentry) approval from the FAA,5 a radio frequency license from the FCC,6 and approval to take pictures of Earth from space (remote sensing) from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).7 This not only is a burdensome and lengthy process for the commercial operator, but it leaves glaring regulatory gaps for non-orbital vehicles, those that do not take pictures or communicate, and those that do not launch from US soil. The USSG will fill these gaps, serving as a one-stop shop to license and register all US commercial space assets. It will streamline the process to enable regular suborbital space tourism and point-to-point transportation with no more difficulty than filing an aircraft flight plan. Not only will this meet the intent of the Outer Space Treaty and The Registration Convention, it will take national accountability one step further, thus setting norms for the international spacefaring community.
The USSG will have the authority to license operators and conduct rocket and spacecraft inspections to ensure a safe and secure environment for space commerce. USSG rules will be designed to minimize financial impact, and they will comply with the government’s rulemaking process: soliciting and addressing concerns from industry and the public before taking effect. This oversight, the details of which will be developed and tailored as industry emerges, will enhance safety and provide a government stamp of approval and space-worthiness for commercial operations. Americans know they are safe taking routine commercial airline flights across the country because they know the aircraft has been properly certified, and the pilots and mechanics have been properly licensed. The same will be true for point-to-point space transportation. In being the first nation to establish a comprehensive government construct for safe and secure commercial space operations, America will set international space operating norms for spacecraft, debris and astronauts.8
In its “response” mission, the USSG will come to the aide of ailing spacecraft and astronauts. Uncontrollable satellites pose a great risk to other space objects in their orbital vicinity, and commercial astronauts in peril should benefit from the same lifesaving efforts of their government as distressed mariners. The USSG will develop robotic capability, augmented by “Space Guardians” as required, that will perform basic repairs to spacecraft that have been built in accordance with internationally accepted design standards. If repair is impossible, the USSG will propel the derelict spacecraft back into the Earth’s atmosphere to disintegrate so that it does not put other spacecraft at risk.9 Just as the Army Air Corps cut its teeth delivering air mail, the USSG may come of age in its active debris removal role. As space commerce expands, a platform similar to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund may emerge to cover the cost of cleaning up after wayward spacecraft. Not only will the USSG remove derelict spacecraft to prevent collisions, it will spearhead the global plan to actively remove tens of thousands of pieces of space debris in Earth orbit that constantly threaten satellites and astronauts. In non-emergent cases, the USSG might charge fees for this service, and there are dozens of business models for companies that could provide this service to the government at a charge.
The USSG will perform space security operations, protecting US astronauts, ships, and cargo. To take the Coast Guard analogy further: a commercial ship does not require missiles, a fire control radar, countermeasures and a battle-ready crew to protect its millions of dollars of precious cargo. Merchant Marines are licensed through the US government, their ships are certified, and they sail with confidence knowing that the Coast Guard is there to provide security and response in case of attack.10 While military spacecraft will no doubt have counterspace capability in their designs at the time horizon in which a USSG is needed, commercial spacecraft will likely focus on their trade, expecting the rule of law to protect them. While the European Space Agency Director General, Jan Wörner, has no desire to be “the mayor of the Moon village, not at all,”11 the USSG will be there to provide basic law enforcement functions to ensure the safety and civility of outpost inhabitants. As early as the 1790s, the Revenue Cutter Service, predecessor to the USCG, served as a law enforcement agency on the edge, where civilization met the water. The USSG will extend this role naturally to the next frontier.
The USSG will also take a leading role in space traffic management. They will maintain and expand upon the existing catalogue of all space objects, facilitate orbital maneuvers, and manage spacecraft placement. They will collaborate with commercial industry, other government agencies, and international partners to represent the United States in a future international space traffic management authority. All of the roles discussed in this section provide the peacetime foundation for safe and profitable US space operations.
Should international armed conflict arise, the US Space Guard will augment the Department of Defense’s space forces. The armed services, and elements within the intelligence community, will continue to develop and manage space assets specifically for the purpose of deterring conflict or fighting our nation’s wars in air, space and cyberspace. The USSG will have a peacetime infrastructure for spacecraft inspection, repair and defense that could be called upon in times of national crisis.
“As with the freedoms of the high seas, the freedom of use of outer space must be exercised with regard to the interests of other states so that their exercise of such freedoms is not unreasonably denied.”12 The United States must take great care to not find itself in an anti-access area denial (A2AD) situation in highly strategic and valuable space locations: the poles of the Moon, Earth-Moon Lagrange points, and the vicinity of near Earth asteroids. The assets and expertise of the USSG, a civil organization with a military structure, will augment America’s might to ensure freedom for our nation’s interests.
As the new frontier of space becomes more accessible to the world, the United States must take the lead in protecting freedom of navigation and action in space for our nation, our commercial interests, and our allies. Space is unforgiving, but its potential rewards are in the trillions of dollars within the century. The United States Space Guard will act as the rule of law in space, establishing norms of behavior to ensure safety. The Space Guard will conduct inspections to ensure quality and compliance, protecting the space travelers and consumers. If a spaceship or astronaut is in peril, brave Space Guardians will save the day. The USSG will maintain security of critical space infrastructure and strategic space locations, and it take on the role of space traffic management in cooperation with commercial partners and allied nations. It will actively remove debris from Earth orbit and monitor the US space strategic reserve. If war extends beyond the atmosphere, the Space Guard will be trained, capable, and always ready to augment the Department of Defense.
In 2018, space is already recognized as a warfighting domain: a congested and contested environment where American superiority cannot be taken for granted. We must address the battles of today while keeping an eye on the far future, laying the foundation so that America will be ready when someone threatens to commandeer hard-earned asteroid resources, hold a satellite hostage, or deny access to a lucrative lunar outpost. The United States Space Guard, America’s Space Guardians, will add a second century of Pax Americana, enabling unlimited American expansion into the final frontier.
- Johnson, R. (1988). Guardians of the Sea. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.
- Ross, W. S. (2018, April 17). Speech to the 34th Annual Space Symposium. Colorado Springs, CO.
- National Space Policy of the United States of America. (2010, June 28).
- Page, S. (2017, December 13). “Space Development, Law, and Values”. Retrieved from IISL Galloway Space Law Symposium.
- FAA. Launch or Reentry Vehicles. Retrieved April 2018.
- FCC. Licensing Systems. Retrieved April 2018.
- NOAA. (2018, April). Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs.
- This construct is similar to international maritime standards, which were largely inspired by the norms established by the USCG: Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution by Ships (MARPOL) and Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) for vessels, pollution control and mariner licensing, respectively.
- Current US practices require that spacecraft in low Earth orbit reenter Earth’s atmosphere within 25 years after the end of their lives. Satellites in higher orbits are supposed to boost up to “graveyard” orbits after their mission is complete (and before they run out of fuel.) Other concepts, including disposing of old spacecraft in the sun, are significantly more complicated from an orbital maneuver standpoint, but should be considered for this as a potential course of action in the far future.
- USCG. (n.d.). Pirate Response. Retrieved from Port Security Advisory.
- Wörner, J. E. (2018, April 16). (author interview)
- Smith, S. (2018, March). A Space Law Primer for Colorado Lawyers, Part 1. Colorado Lawyer, pp. 50–51