March 30, 2020

Review: Crowded Orbits by James Clay Moltz

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Space is becoming a crowded place. In the past 50+ years, the environs of space around our fair planet have evolved, and the political and even legal landscape has struggled to keep up with it.

This week’s review entitled Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space by James Clay Moltz out from Columbia University Press is a fascinating look at where we’ve come from in commercial and military space, and where we may be headed. Fans of this “space” (bad pun intended) will recall our review of Mr. Moltz’s book Asia’s Space Race recently.

Crowded Orbits looks back at the legacy of the Cold War and the treaties and evolving geo-political framework of manned and unmanned space flight that has led to our current situation. It then traces out possible scenarios and directions for the future of space travel as we continue to expand as a space faring culture. What will space tourism mean for space exploration and exploitation from a legal and political standpoint? What can be done about the burgeoning collection of space debris that’s cluttering up low Earth orbit? Will newly minted space faring nations heed existing treaties and protocols already in place?

Crowded Orbits looks not only at the successes set by precedent, but at the failures as well. In manned spaceflight, the International Space Station is hailed as an unmitigated success in terms of international cooperation, although similar ideas for an international base on the Moon got off to a floundering start in the era of Constellation. In the realm of military space, the early doctrines put in place by the United States and the Soviet Union arguably averted an all out “space war.” Still, it is interesting to note that a long running “secret” military space program has been carried out by several nations that parallels the more high visibility public roles of agencies such as NASA and Roscosmos.

Crowded Orbits also backs up its assertions with hard numbers. For example, while NASA does operate with an ever dwindling budget, its annual funding (16.5 billion dollars in 2013) is larger than the next three space programs – the European Space Agency (5.6 billion) Roscosmos (4.4 billion) and Japan (3.8 billion) – combined.  Still, NASA has gone to places such as the outer solar system that other nations have yet to achieve… how much more could be done with only a slight increase?

Like Asia’s Space Race, Crowded Orbits also looks at the enigma that China poses as a growing up and coming space power. The exclusion of China was a highly visible omission to the partnership of the International Space Station, and China has since moved ahead with the construction of a space station of its own — Tiangong-1, which is soon to be deorbited. China has also shown as willingness to strike out on its own and even carried out an anti-satellite missile test in 2007.

Such is the brave new world of space exploration and space commerce we find ourselves in. be sure to read Crowded Orbits for a fascinating look at what might be in store!

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