“You know, orbital debris was something we talk about historically at every conference. We’re all cognizant of it. We’ve got to do something about it. You know, next year or the year after. Well, I’m here to tell you that that was a couple of years ago. Now, we are already behind the eight ball. The physics of space mean the debris doesn’t leave the domain for months, years, decades, depending on where you’re at.”
That’s what Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, told us in a recent SSPI podcast: “Our Worst Fears.” It’s a truth that most of us have trouble wrapping our heads around. Space is inherently a dangerous place. No air, terrible heat in sunlight and terrible cold in shadow, and radiation that will put a real crimp in life expectancy. And the volume of space between Earth’s surface and GEO orbit is almost unimaginably vast. What’s the big deal about a few leftover pieces of spacecraft matter?
Listen to Safe Space, Episode 2: Our Worst Fears
The Risks We Create
The big deal is that most of those leftover pieces are orbiting in a narrow band between 750 and 1,000 km in altitude. That’s where we left them on our way into space, and they have been busy crashing into each other and making more debris ever since. There may be 100 million of debris circling the Earth at blazing speed. If space weren’t hard enough, we have been making it harder for ourselves for a half century.
We seem to be hard-wired to ignore definite but distant risks. Take climate change. We have seen it coming for decades, thanks to the work of smart and dedicated people. But it was always something that would happen tomorrow and mostly to someone else. A fringe concern when I was young, it is now a visible reality to all except those most firmly in denial. The doubters are running out of runway, however, in part because of the mountain of detail about our changing planet being revealed by EO satellite operators from Planet and Airbus to NASA, ESA and GHGSat. We are seriously behind this particular eight ball, but at least we are in the game.
The Risks We Reduce
In this issue of The Orbiter, we turn our attention to the many risks of space to human beings and the machines we launch there, and how we work to reduce them. We gather up all the audio, video, social media and written content of our six-week Reducing the Risks of Space campaign for your easy access. We thank the Space Shuttle Children’s Trust Fund for originating the idea and supporting the campaign, along with Momentus Space.
The risks of space will always be with us. (If you don’t believe it, check out this wonderful SpaceX video: “How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster.”) The good news about the risks we create ourselves is the same ingenuity that went into making the mess can be harnessed to make it better. It’s time to get in the game.