June freelance writings: A space arms race, space sustainability, and the damages of solitary confinement

In case you missed them, here’s a few new pieces I’ve written and published for Politico magazine, Smithsonian magazine, and Knowable magazine over the past month. Thanks as usual to all of my excellent editors. I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so please check out the whole thing using the links below. I also published a book review in Undark and an article in Quanta. If you’d like to stay up on my and others’ latest science writing, sign up for my new newsletter!


How Trump’s ‘Space Force’ Could Set Off a Dangerous Arms Race

The president says he wants to dominate the cosmos. But China and Russia aren’t just going to stand by.

The Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite constellation. (Credit: US Air Force)

“When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space,” President Donald Trump said Monday as he announced the creation of a new “Space Force” to protect U.S. interests and assets in space. “We must have American dominance in space.”

Past American presidents may have thought the same, and acted accordingly, but rarely have they ever expressed this sentiment so brazenly. It’s yet another way Trump has broken with past precedent—and it could set off a dangerous arms race, potentially sparking a Cold War in space.

As one top expert on space security, Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, put it to me, “This will probably be seen as another indicator that the United States is moving towards a more militaristic position regarding space activity.”

Trump directed the Pentagon on Monday to establish a sixth branch of the military to focus on space, presumably separating personnel that concentrate on things like military satellites and their ground infrastructure from the Air Force…A separate plan for developing missile defense platforms to be deployed in space may be in the works as well, though, if Congress decides to fund it…

[Read the entire piece in Politico magazine, published on 22 June.]


Greening the Future of Outer Space

A team of scientists and policy experts want to develop space sustainably for future generations.

hTe Outer Space Treaty—written in 1967 and signed by all the major world powers—is the closest thing we have to a constitution for space. For a document conceived before the moon landing, it’s remarkably forward-looking: it declares “celestial bodies” like the moon and asteroids off-limits for private development and requires countries authorize and continually supervise companies’ activities in space. It also says that space exploration should be carried out for the benefit of all peoples, and it explicitly prohibits weapons of mass destruction in space.

But even with that impressive scope of vision, the treaty’s authors could never have imagined where we’d be now. Currently there are 1,738 man-made satellites in orbit around our planet. As they become more affordable to build and launch—think of them as the drones of low Earth orbit—they’ll no doubt proliferate and vie for valuable real estate there with space stations, space tourists, space colonists, space miners, military spacecraft, and thousands of derelict satellites and other immobile debris.

So far no one has any idea how to deal with the scientific and engineering challenges—let alone the political, legal, and business ones—involved in sustainably managing orbital debris and mining celestial objects. “There needs to be a path moving forward with economic and science opportunities, but doing it in a way that mitigates damage as much as possible and hopefully with no conflicts,” says Aaron Boley, a planetary physicist at the University of British Columbia…

[Read the entire piece in Smithsonian magazine, published on 1 June.]


The hidden damage of solitary confinement

Meant to punish or protect, social isolation in prison creates a ripple of unintended effects on the psyche.

The boring, monotonous or even soul-crushing experience of being locked up in solitary confinement has been brought to the silver screen by actors like Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, lonely and idle in a concrete box the size of a bathroom. Yet many people are unaware of the lasting harm it can wreak or of its widespread use: Solitary confinement is a common practice in nearly every state of the United States, where tens of thousands of inmates are being held in isolation at any time, and in dozens of other countries around the globe.

Many experts and human rights advocates oppose the practice, citing a growing body of research that has revealed its pernicious impacts on mental health. One of those is Craig Haney, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and author of a 2018 article on the subject in the Annual Review of Criminology. In the article, Haney writes that not only are there serious psychological repercussions of solitary, but also that there’s an emerging consensus that the practice is costly and ineffective, in that it “does not achieve its intended objectives and may even worsen the problems it was designed to solve…”

[Read the entire interview in Knowable magazine, published on 22 June.]

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