THE EARLY MORNING HOURS of St. Patrick’s Day 1958, a nervous satellite team waited, “like expectant fathers,” for the continuation of a countdown that had already been thrice canceled. A short hold for electronic problems was followed by a “stretch-out.” Incredibly, the United States’s second satellite (and only the fourth satellite to ever be launched from Earth) was on a traffic hold. Kurt Stehling, head of the launch vehicle division of Project Vanguard at the Naval Research Laboratory, marveled at the “unprecedented event.” He admitted, “that never in [his] earlier life did [he] expect to see the day when one would have to wait until satellite traffic in the sky was cleared for the launching of another orbiter.” Lift off was achieved at 07:15:41, and Vanguard 1, or the “Grapefruit Satellite ”as it was dismissively nicknamed by Nikita Khrushchev, reached its appointed orbit where it remains today as the “oldest manmade satellite still in orbit about the Earth.”
Though the satellite stopped communicating with Earth in 1964, it continues to be tracked visually and is expected to remain in its orbit for another 180 years. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Vanguard 1 launch, space analyst James Oberg suggested that space and robotic technology had advanced enough to contemplate a mission to retrieve the satellite that has outlived “almost all of the human beings who created it.” The launch, operations span, lifespan, and proposed retrieval of the Grapefruit Satellite palpably frames our relatively brief interaction with outer space. On one hand, it underscores the tremendous advancement made in space technologies during the nearly sixty years Vanguard 1 has been on-orbit. On the other hand, it reveals a troubling trend where a spacecraft’s lifespan vastly outlasts its operational capability, leaving inert and inoperative satellites—often much larger than grapefruits—to crowd our precious orbit without providing any benefit.
The ability to physically interact with an on-orbit object has been stymied by its formidable cost, yet the potential rewards are incalculable. Autonomous on-orbit servicing (OOS) vehicles could potentially repair or salvage an ailing satellite or remove it from orbit. The former could help recoup the considerable resources invested in the development and construction of a satellite, and the latter would reduce space debris. In short, the development of OOS should be promoted rather than budgeted out. This article will explore the legal ramifications and complications of unmanned OOS missions. After reviewing the international framework and the current state of affairs, this article suggests that States have an obligation to repair, salvage, or remove from orbit defunct space objects and proposes an organizational framework that will promote compliance with efforts to clean up the junkyard surrounding our planet.