What Goes Up Must Not Come Down

On May 21, 1998, PanAmSat satellite Galaxy 4 suddenly and inexplicably stopped working.

In order for a satellite to relay signals for telecommunications services, its antennas must be pointed at the Earth; gyroscopes keep the satellite pointed in the right direction. But on that day, Galaxy 4 began to spin out of control, rotating once every three minutes, and transmission was disrupted.

Scientists on the ground succeeded in fixing the problem by the next day, but in the meantime, radio listeners, gasoline buyers and customers who used “beepers” (paging devices) felt the effects. Some 80 percent of pagers went out of service.

The incident was brief and faded quickly from the public mind. But as the United States and other countries have become increasingly dependent on orbiting satellites — as of April 2018, there were 1,980 active satellites and another 2,877 inactive, or “junk” satellites in space, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) — those responsible for them have not forgotten what happened to Galaxy 4. There has been an ongoing effort to monitor their status and to find ways to prevent any further mission failures, particularly where that would jeopardize national security.

In line with that, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum on Tuesday authorizing the Department of Defense to create a new Space Command. The program, which could cost about $800 million, will aim to establish a single department in the Pentagon charged with overseeing space operations, accelerate technical advances and develop more effective ways to defend U.S. assets in space.

Although a detailed plan is not yet available, it was estimated that it would draw on about 600 staff from existing military space offices, and add another 1,000 or so over the coming years.

This is not just a matter of pagers blinking off, as inconvenient as that might be. It’s about warding off a wide, frightening array of satellite malfunction or sabotage that would essentially pull the plug on almost everything we take for granted today in the realm of communications.

A satellite shutdown would knock out all international calls, and data traffic would have to be re-routed to land and undersea lines, which would quickly become overloaded. No radio, no cellphones, no internet (no comment), no GPS, no credit cards or banking transactions.

Nor is the danger limited to technical glitches. In recent years, U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that Russia and China are building anti-satellite weapons that could bring down these orbiting satellites, which have become so vital to the economic and social order.

Such anti-satellite technology could target American defense and security assets directly. A satellite takedown could wreak havoc with the U.S. military’s ability to keep watch over hostile nations and track American troops using GPS coordinates.

In light of all this, President Trump’s decision to create Space Command would seem to be a significant step toward strengthening national security. It doesn’t, however, lend itself to soaring rhetoric or grandiose announcements.

For Space Command is essentially an initiative of reorganization, defense and maintenance, not about exploring new worlds. It was not announced in a stirring oration, but in a one-page memorandum. In fact, the president himself didn’t even make a speech; Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, announced the decision on Tuesday during an appearance at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, along with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.

But its importance cannot be underestimated.

As media reports noted, this presidential directive should not be confused with the controversial idea of creating a Space Force as an independent branch of the armed services. But it doesn’t mean that he has abandoned the idea, either.

“In the days ahead, President Trump will also sign a new space policy directive that will lay out our plans and our timeline to create the sixth branch of the armed forces, the U.S. Space Force,” Vice-President Pence said.

Earlier this year, Mr. Trump said that a Space Force would include systems that could “degrade, deny, disrupt, destroy, and manipulate adversary capabilities.” Whereas the Space Command is defensive in nature, a Space Force would be offensive in nature, with a countervailing capacity to what the Russians and Chinese are working on.

The political reality at the moment is that the country would be unlikely to support the president, embattled as he is, on that more ambitious project. Passage of enabling legislation through Congress, given the new Democratic majority, would be difficult, to say the least.

In the meantime, though, the initiative is sound and should be followed through with support from both parties, for the common defense.