Dreams and Nightmares

by Bob Werb on February 10, 2010

The proposed budget from the Obama administration is the most exciting and promising thing to happen to NASA in several generations.  If adopted by Congress it will represent the reversal of a policy that has kept humans locked in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) since December 19th, 1972.  The plan to enable, rather than compete against, private sector efforts, coupled with a return to NACA-like technology development would make the US government a serious player in opening the space frontier, joining dozens of NewSpace companies who are already on the job.

By admitting the failure of the latest paper rockets, the administration is freeing up funds to do many things that may actually work.  Some of those things have long been a part of the NewSpace agenda, commercial crew and cargo, discovery and exploration of Near Earth Objects, orbital fuel depots and breakthrough technology research.  I’m here offering up one more that screams for attention.

One year ago today, on February 10, 2009, Iridium 33 and Kosmos-2251 collided, creating thousands of pieces of orbital debris and ending forever the belief that governments and corporations can carelessly discard retired satellites and junk in the “Big Sky.”   The era of the Big Sky was characterized by the idea that orbital space is so large that the probability that any two object’s orbits will intersect was quite small.  As early as 1978 Donald J. Kessler observed that the odds of collision over time were significant and that each collision produced additional objects that would increase the rate of future collisions leading to an exponential growth in the collision rate and debris population.  Today we know that this “Kessler Syndrome” is not simply a theoretical possibility—if we don’t take action soon it will happen, making the use of LEO impractical for centuries to come.  This would be a nightmare for everybody who relies on LEO for both military and civilian remote sensing.   It would end the International Space Station or any other LEO space station.  Kessler’s scary syndrome would make getting to higher orbits much riskier and costly.

(I need to address a bugaboo that I’ve heard several times.  A debris field in LEO, even a very dense debris field, does not keep us trapped inside Earth’s atmosphere.  No amount of debris would prevent sending rockets through so long as we move though quickly and don’t mind losing some of them.  The risk could conceivably get so high that few people would be willing to risk it.  But high value cargo and people willing to take the chance will get through.)

So here we are a year after the first big, accidental, orbital crackup and you might think that efforts are underway to deal aggressively with the problem.  Wrong.  The last year has seen a slight increase in awareness of the problem, some papers published, a technical conference and little else.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not calling for some big, expensive, technology program to deal with orbital debris.  All that is needed is some leadership and a little money to spend on getting lawyers, diplomats, economists, military planners and a few politicians focused on designing a set of carrots and sticks that both minimize the creation of new debris and incentivizes private sector efforts to clean up the highest risk bits and pieces.  This is a problem that can be solved, so long as we act before it gets out of control.

Now that our dreams are starting to become reality, let’s not let them be thwarted by a nightmare.

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