NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — Your tax dollars have been hard at work since the 1950s pushing the frontiers of space exploration funding government agencies like NASA. Yet that progress has come at a price: mankind has polluted space with waste. Lots of it.

Reaching up to 1,242 miles from the earth's surface, hundreds of thousands of pieces of orbiting litter are increasingly making operations in space riskier. A piece of space debris even 4 inches in length smashing into an astronaut or space vehicle at 20 times the speed of sound can have devastating consequences.

Some experts want taxes to be levied to finance a space cleanup, especially before the anticipated boom in "commercial space exploration" becomes a reality.

Is that feasible? Are we exaggerating the problem?

The Debris Debate

The answer to the second question is easier and clearer—yes, space debris is a huge problem. So huge that NASA already spends a lot of money on the Orbital Debris Program Office both to monitor the problem and to suggest solutions.

In 1978, a NASA scientist named Donald Kessler predicted a catastrophic situation where a large collision could set forth a chain reaction of metal fragments that would smash into hundreds of other satellites that would make low-earth orbit (100 to 200 miles off earth) unusable.

In 2009, Kessler's fears almost came true when two satellites collided—a U.S. Iridium and a Russian Cosmos. In 2011, the National Research Council published a report called "Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft" reviewing NASA's efforts and preparedness to handle such scenarios.

Space debris is now also part of popular culture— Hollywood said goodbye to the old formula of asteroids crashing into earth in its latest blockbuster. Gravityand replaced it with space debris crashing into a space shuttle to drive the movie's plot.

Taxing Questions

With countries like China and India pursuing ambitious space programs, some of them militarized, the challenges of regulating space waste have grown considerably.

"The main regulatory hurdle is that we are talking about an activity that is fundamentally the realm of sovereign states," said Brian Weeden, technical advisor with the Secure World Foundation. "Under the existing space law regime, all space activity is the responsibility of nation states."

This brings us to the question of the feasibility of a space tax. Who will levy it? How will proceeds from the tax be distributed and used? Will the world's space community speak in one voice?

Weeden doesn't think so.

"Each state is required to provide on-going supervision of the space activities of all their national entities, including the private sector. That brings in elements of geopolitics, national security, and sovereignty that make a solution such as imposing a tax impossible," he said. Weeden should know, having built his expertise with a 9-year stint in the U.S. military's strategic and space communities before branching out as an expert on space situational awareness (SSA).