Give Us Back Our Junk: Space Debris, 1968

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

According to the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1963, finding states are obligated to return space objects landing on their territory to the launching country.  In other words, pieces of American rockets and satellites falling on other countries must be returned to the U.S.  The subsequent Outer Space Treaty and the Assistance and Return Agreement affirm that in more detail.  Yet, when space debris identified as coming from a U.S. source fell into Saudi Arabia in late 1967, the Saudis did not want to give it up, forcing the U.S. ambassador there to personally appeal to the King for its return. 

rocket launching with clouds billowing under it
Launch of IMP satellite in March 1971 (Local Identifier 255-71P-200, NAID 201796697)

In mid-October 1967, the U.S. consulate in Dharan submitted a report by a local ARAMCO official about an object that had fallen to earth.  The report described “a spherical tank or pressure vessel about two feet in diameter with a one-inch threaded orifice  in its surface.”  It also noted two lines of letters and numbers stenciled on the sphere.  The ARAMCO official surmised that the object could be a piece of oil company equipment, from a high-altitude aircraft, or from a rocket or satellite.  The tank was turned over to the local Amir.

A month later, the Department directed the U.S. embassy in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to inform Saudi authorities that the U.S. wanted the object for analysis in order to determine if it was from a U.S. space vehicle.  The Department informed the embassy that the letters and numbers suggested that it was, but that positive identification depended on analysis by NASA in the U.S.  If the Saudis were reluctant, the embassy was directed to bring to their attention the provisions of the declaration and the Outer Space Treaty. Even though the Saudis had not signed the latter, their delegate to the UN had  voted for the former.

b/w photo of satellite w/4 panels surronding a drum, long antenna extends from drum
IMP satellite (1963). The satellite is 5-6 feet. (Local Identifier 255-G-47-63-IMP-2; NAID 636262)

Two days later U.S. Ambassador Hermann Eilts reported that the foreign minister, to whom he had spoken to ask for the object, had no knowledge of the matter but would raise the issue with the King when he went to Riyadh in the next couple of days.  The ambassador closed by noting he would “follow-up as appropriate.”  Two months went by following Eilts’ report, with no further action or response on the matter, prompting the Department to request a status update.

Upon receipt of the reminder, Eilts reported that he had reminded the foreign minister several times about U.S. desire for return of the sphere.  He noted that the minister had always assured him that he had written to the interior ministry recommending approval, but was awaiting a reply.  Because the foreign minister was now out on sick leave, Eilts had raised the matter with the acting foreign minister just a few days before.  Unfortunately, that official knew nothing about the subject and could not find his ministry’s letter to the interior ministry, although he promised to follow up.  Eilts closed, promising to keep the Department informed of developments.  Again nothing happened, prompting the Department to request a status update in late April after waiting almost three months.

Within a week Eilts reported that he had raised the issue several times, and was working with the Amir of the Eastern Province, who held the object, and the foreign office, which was in “discussion” with the interior ministry.  A month later, the embassy reported that efforts to secure return were ongoing and that the foreign minister said he could not understand the delay on the part of the interior ministry.  In response, the Department sent the following telegram:

Two weeks later, Eilts sent an update in which he expressed some frustration with the run-around he was getting from Saudi officials.  A day later, however, he was able to report some progress in the following telegram:

After receiving Eilts’ report, the Department replied as follows:

Telegram 2634406 from Department of State to Jidda, Oct 31, 1968 (NAID 580618)

In response, on October 31, Eilts reported that while the principle of return was established and the Saudi Arabian delegate to the UN voted for the 1963 Declaration, nevertheless, the Saudis had not signed the Outer Space Treaty and the Assistance and Return Agreement and did not plan to sign.  Furthermore, Eilts noted that given the King’s “reported adamance re giving it up to us, there is frankly little point in attempting recover space capsule by advancing legal arguments.”  He would have to discuss the matter with the King himself “and, on personal basis, try to convince him to return capsule.”  Eilts noted that he had no upcoming meetings with the King and that “it would be counter-productive [to] ask for special audience simply to discuss” the space junk.  Rather, he would have to bring it up when meeting to discuss other issues.  He also mentioned that the press kit could be useful in explaining to the King why the U.S. believed the debris was a pressure bottle from the IMP satellite.

Eilts had an audience with King Faisal late the next month.  Afterward, he reported the results with regard to the rocket debris in the following telegram.

Subsequently, the chief of Saudi royal protocol informed Eilts that the King had ordered the capsule sent to him after the part numbers provided by the Ambassador were verified by Prince Nawwaf. 

Finally, on January 8, 1969, after more than a year of effort, the embassy in Jidda reported that the fragment was boxed up and ready to go, being shipped commercial air freight.  The U.S. was getting its space garbage back.  The cost to ship the 95 pounds of space junk was about $190.00.


Sources

At the time, the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia was located in the city of Jidda, not the capital, Riyadh. 

  • American Consulate Dharan, Airgram A-46, October 18, 1967, enclosing report by James Mandaville, Jr.; Department of State to American Embassy Jidda, Telegram 074329, November 24, 1967; Jidda to Department of State, Telegram 1929, November 26, 1967; Department of State to Jidda, Telegram 103096, January 23, 1968; all file SP 16, 1970-73 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State
  • Jidda to Department of State, Telegram 2531, January 24, 1968; Department of State to Jidda, Telegram 149724, April 19, 1968; both file SP-16, Classified Central Subject Files (NAID 119222113), 1968-69, Entry P-864, RG 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State
  • American Embassy Jidda to Department of State, Telegram 3702, April 22, 1968; Department of State to Jidda, Telegram 176782, June 5, 1968; Jidda to Department of State, Telegram 4181, May 28, 1968; Department of State to Jidda, Telegram 2634406, October 29, 1968; Jidda to Department of State, Telegram 5808, October 31, 1968; Jidda to Department of State, Telegram 6045, November 11, 1968; Jidda to Department of State, Telegram 6143, December 1, 1968; Jidda to Department of State, Telegram 4770, January 8, 1969; all file SP 16 US, 1970-73 Subject-Numeric File (NAID 580618), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

A review of the embassy files indicates that Ambassador Eilts drafted all the telegrams from the embassy in Jidda noted above.

My colleagues Nick Natanson and Alicia Henneberry provided valuable assistance.

3 thoughts on “Give Us Back Our Junk: Space Debris, 1968

  1. It would be fascinating to hear what happened to the pressure tank when it got back to the US, was it identified and connected to a particular rocket launch? Did anyone ever go out and look for more pieces?

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