U.S. Space Force General warns about congestion of space, international conflicts


Alex Saraff | Staff Writer

General David Thompson speaks to a crowd gathered at the O’Hara Student Center on Thursday.

By Alex Saraff, Staff Writer

Since humanity first went into space, space has become a territory akin to the “Wild West,” according to General David Thompson of the United States Space Force, who spoke at Pitt about today’s “inflection point in space history.” 

General Thompson, the vice chief of space operations for the USSF, is in charge of training and preparing space forces that provide essential information about position and airborne attacks through satellites for the U.S., according to the official website. Thompson spoke Thursday at the O’Hara Student Center about new developments in space affairs and ways for students to get involved.

“We are probably at a nexus and a cusp and an inflection point from an international affairs perspective, from a security perspective, from a stability perspective and from a commercialization and responsible use perspective,” Thompson said.

He said satellites — which provide GPS services, cellular data and a myriad of other modern services — are extremely vulnerable. Russia and China have recently shown signs of “aggression” in outer space, which Thompson said is a national security concern.

“The Chinese destroyed their own satellite demonstrating they are prepared to take away space capability,” Thompson said. “In 2019, the Russians launched a satellite into space placed right next to one of our staff, maneuvered it aggressively then backed off while we were watching.” 

Thompson said space has become more “congested” over time, particularly in the last 10 years. This kind of “space debris” poses a danger to nearby satellites and spacecrafts because they have the potential to pick up speed and impact nearby spacecrafts, as well as the Earth itself.

“Up through about 10 years ago, we tracked about 1,000 active satellites and about 20,000 objects in space,” Thompson said. “We now track 7,000 active satellites in space, 40,000 objects, and within 10 years that will almost certainly increase tenfold.”

But congestion and debris are not the core issues, according to Thompson. Thompson said one of the most pressing issues regarding outer space is its severe lack of regulation. He likened space to the “Wild West” currently.

“There is not a long, consistent and commonly accepted set of norms and rules of behavior for operating space,” Thompson said. “If you are going to pursue these proliferating toxic relations to the point that there are hundreds of thousands of objects, the physics of that says you’re going to have to clean up after yourself much more aggressively.”

Thompson said aspiring policymakers are needed in the domain of space.

“There is a very significant shortfall in the policies, we just haven’t moved far enough fast enough on norms of behavior and international standards,” Thompson said.

The Ridgway Center for International Security Studies, a Pitt organization dedicated to training policymakers in international affairs and one of the sponsors of the event, has a research area focused on the geopolitics of space, which Thompson described as the most important “nexus” of areas like policy and technology for the human race.

Kaleigh Dryden, a student at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs who is leading policy research at the Ridgway Center, agreed that the main issue with space is its lack of regulation.

“The main problem is that there are no globally accepted norms of behavior in outer space,” Dryden said. “There are lots of ways to go about solving this issue, but collective action is going to be important — cooperation with competitors and non-spacefaring nations will be critical to developing space policies and norms that everyone wants to adhere to.” 

Dryden said what makes space a difficult domain is its novelty.

“What makes it difficult is that because it’s new, everyone has different ideas on how to go about regulating it — is it more like the open ocean or the open skies,” Dryden said.

According to Thompson, countries have to find a way to cooperate for the use of space and not use it as a realm of conflict. 

“It’s got to be nations and communications, interested in finding ways to collaborate and cooperate, not to be in conflict with each other,” Thompson said. “I think it’s [conflict in space] a reflection of the tension and the conflict that we see internationally and geopolitically in other domains.”