Conclusion

Discussed have been three frontiers of environmental policy as they relate to space: (1) space-based observations of Earth for understanding and predicting large-scale environmental change; (2) near-Earth space as a place increasingly used for commercial, scientific, military, and other practical purposes, and consequent issues of regulation for crowding and debris; and (3) deep space—the moon, Mars, and beyond- as humanity reaches to explore, settle, exploit and protect itself from outer space. Policy has set in motion technological advancement. Technology's advancement has linked space with environmental policy.

Space-based observations are the most obvious and self-conscious application of space technology to environmental policy. They began in the 1960s and have expanded enormously since. With increased concern for global warming, they are likely to be even more central to environmental policy for the future. Communications satellites and their use of geostationary near-Earth orbit also began in the 1960s and have been continually driven by commercial and military interests. The environmental impacts of communications satellites have been an after-thought, but they are becoming more salient with the growth of users of near-Earth orbits. In the case of deep space, the major environmental issue to date has been contamination—forward and backward. That it was perceived in the 1960s as a concern speaks well of policymakers of that era. It is also an issue likely to gain importance in the 21st century.

It is fair to say that environmental considerations have evolved unevenly and slowly and have had mixed influence on space policy. These considerations have obviously moved further with Earth observation than other areas. But even here, there is unevenness, with a serious lack of policy to govern operational Earth observation systems other than weather prediction. Environmental policy has been a late-arriving "overlay" on policies pursued for economic and other reasons in near-Earth orbit. But it is rising on the agenda of policymakers who are concerned with the use of particular orbits in near-Earth space. It has had to do so for reasons of crowding in a limited resource place. Environmental policy in relation to deep space received early attention owing to Apollo and contamination issues. Since the 1960s, it has been an episodic policy concern. However, it is likely to grow also in the future as Mars is explored continuously with robotic devices to find life, and as man revisits the Moon.

The most serious, and immediate, unresolved problem in the nexus of space and environment is arguably that of debris in near-earth orbit, especially in the orbit favored for communications satellites. More and more nations seek to use this special place for practical needs, both civilian and military. As this limited resource becomes steadily more crowded and polluted, it requires regulation. Policies to protect near-Earth space appear weak or not in place at all. Most people do not think of space as environment. They will when the first debris-related accident destroys a major satellite of significance, or worse, if a piece of debris hits the ISS or Space Shuttle and takes human life. When that happens, there will be widespread acknowledgement that space is not only a final frontier of technology but of environment as well.

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