NASA meteoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) programs are budgeted and operated through an organizational structure in which there is no single management and coordination point. This mode of operation is partly the result of growth in the MMOD programs from different organizations within the NASA structure. Key decisions pertaining to MMOD safety, including whether to maneuver a craft in response to a possible collision with debris, are made mostly at the mission level, essentially leaving the debris problem to the heads of the various mission operators. Formally, this is a highly decentralized decision system. Communication among program managers and senior debris scientists appears to be effective but is not facilitated by a decision system with a central coordination point. In addition, some members of the committee have personally observed that inter-agency cooperation, information sharing, and coordination can be hampered by what are often referred to as “security issues,” whether real or perceived. This lack of cooperation and coordination could have negative consequences if errors are made either by NASA personnel or by the users of NASA’s hazard assessment or debris mitigation models. Of particular note is what often appears to be the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) unwillingness to provide raw debris tracking data to NASA personnel involved in performing COLA/CARA calculations.1
As the NASA orbital debris programs have grown, so also have the number of organizations that they support or depend on to obtain essential data, both national and international. This interdependency has created complex reporting lines as well as a need for integrated policy decisions. In addition, funding sources have often been fragmented, centered on individual program needs of the space agency.
Recent efforts2 to bring funding authority and personnel reporting lines under a single office at NASA headquarters seem appropriate. If this approach succeeds, efforts to solve present and future orbital debris problems may be less fragmented and accomplished through more stable and consistent levels of resource allocation. This type of structure would also facilitate the evaluation of cost-effectiveness and safe approaches to the removal of orbital debris from low Earth orbit (and geosynchronous Earth orbit, if necessary) and would allow the monitoring of adherence to mitigation guidelines as well as the need to modify or expand any current mitigation practices. The end result would be programs better able to execute their missions and better able to maintain, and even enhance, the internationally recognized leadership position of NASA. A central coordination point would also facilitate the
1 L. Newman, “NASA Robotic Conjunction Assessment Risk Analysis (CARA): Process and System Overview,” presentation to the Committee for the Assessment of NASA’s Orbital Debris Programs, December 14, 2010, National Research Council, Washington, D.C.
2 J.W. Lyver, NASA, “Proposal for Establishing a NASA Umbrella Program for Space Debris in FY-2012,” presentation dated May 13, 2010, Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, Safety and Assurance Requirements Division, NASA, Washington, D.C.
development of an effective and implementable strategic plan (see below) and need not be a single administrative position (for example, it could be a steering committee of senior program managers).
Finding: NASA’s management structure has not kept pace with the expanding responsibilities of its MMOD programs. Consequently, the MMOD programs do not have a single management and budget point that can efficiently coordinate all of the current and planned activities and establish clear priorities.
Recommendation: NASA should review the current management structure of its MMOD programs in order to achieve better coordination, provide improved central decision making, and establish a framework for setting priorities. This framework should include a major interface with Congress, other federal and state agencies, and the public.
The 2010 National Space Policy expands NASA’s role in MMOD risk assessment to include the potential removal of debris from space, although NASA may not be the party to actually do this. NASA’s MMOD programs have as yet conducted only preliminary assessments of the issues associated with the return of debris to Earth. As discussed elsewhere in this report, these early assessments suggest that active removal of as few as five large objects a year may have a significant impact on controlling the future growth of debris generated by collisional events.3 Detailed analysis will be needed to assess the costs, benefits, and risks associated with alternative actions for debris removal.
The nature of NASA’S meteoroid and orbital debris efforts are continuous and long term in nature, whereas programmatic funding becomes available on an annual basis and is subject to unpredictability. Implementation of the 2010 National Space Policy will necessarily increase the demands placed on NASA’s MMOD programs. Funding levels to support orbital debris programs have been flat or shrinking in real dollars, while responsibilities and programs have been growing. As a result, optical sampling of the space environment has been reduced, analysis of the Haystack data has been limited, tests that would provide more accurate breakup models have not been conducted, needed support for operational missions has sometimes not been available, and model updates/releases have been delayed.
During its review of NASA’s MMOD efforts, the committee noted several instances of research results not being conveyed or communicated to the community at large. Some groups and individuals within NASA do publish their work through a rigorous peer review process; for example, the record of peer-reviewed publications for the LEGEND work is commendable. Other groups and individuals do not pursue peer-reviewed publication, or appear to misconstrue what is meant by peer review, perhaps because of a perceived lack of incentive or reward for following a rigorous publication process. As an example, the committee notes that only approximately 25 percent of the references cited as being instrumental to the development of the ORDEM2000 environment model were peer-reviewed prior to its launch; the remaining references were either other NASA publications or internal NASA documents or communications that are unavailable or difficult to access by those outside NASA.
The concerns with not bringing forth work for peer review in a timely manner are two-fold:
1. The space community is not apprised of NASA’s work and results, nor is it made privy to NASA’s thought process behind rules, regulations, or policies that it develops or supports.
2. The inference can be drawn that if the work is not published through a rigorous peer-review process, it may not be technically sound.
3 These early assessments have a number of assumptions behind this conclusion. See Chapter 1.
Peer review of research may not be appropriate in all situations; for instance, conferences and workshops may be better suited for presentation of some types of research. However, peer review does represent an effective method of conveying scientifically tested and accepted results, underlying intricacies, and other key pieces of information to the community at large.
Finding: NASA’s MMOD researchers do not consistently communicate the results of their work to the scientific community, with the result that users of NASA’s codes and models have less understanding regarding the underlying assumptions and intricacies in each code and model.
Recommendation: NASA should encourage its MMOD researchers to more fully communicate the results of their work and their development activities, such as in appropriate peer-reviewed publications when possible, so that users of NASA’s codes and models gain a greater appreciation for and more clearly understand the underlying assumptions and intricacies in each code and model.
Because of the steadily increasing number of ventures in space, the expertise of NASA’s MMOD programs is increasingly sought after by a wide variety of space exploration parties. As pointed out in Chapter 1, “Introduction and Historical Background,” the resources provided to NASA’s programs (funding, personnel, research support, and so on) have not, however, been increased to meet these growing demands. In fact, many of the operations within NASA that are related to orbital debris are “one civil servant deep” and include a support staff of mostly on- and off-site contractors. As such, there is no redundancy within NASA in case of retirements or resignations. This shallowness of personnel coverage could seriously jeopardize a number of ongoing life- and mission-critical operations should a program or activity lead retire, resign, or be re-assigned.
Finding: Nearly all of NASA’s MMOD programs are only one person deep in staffing. This shortage of staffing makes the programs highly vulnerable to budget reductions or changes in personnel. Further reductions in real budgetary support over the coming years could threaten the viability and scope of ongoing MMOD programs.
In December 1981, NASA formulated a draft 10-Year Space Debris Assessment Plan that outlined MMOD goals and planned program developments for 1981 through 1991. This was a valuable document that identified MMOD goals and proposed program developments. The committee has been unable to find, however, any formal MMOD strategic plan covering the period since 1991 to guide MMOD research priorities, budget allocations, and program developments. The committee did examine a 1995 PowerPoint presentation in which one slide stated five general program goals, but no supporting plan was provided. NASA appears to lack a strategic plan for MMOD-related activities, including research, model development, operations, and management, but such a strategic plan is usually a centerpiece of major governmental and corporate programs. MMOD program managers informed the committee that many of the pieces and insights needed for such a plan exist but simply have not been brought together. The lack of such a formal plan, however, encourages making key budget decisions and research priorities in an uncoordinated way, rather than through a coherent, well-thought-out strategy. If such a plan were in place, then, whether funding increased or decreased over time, the plan would provide guidance as to how efforts would be structured and resources allocated.
In the committee’s view, a useful strategic plan would address four major questions:
1. Where are we? This first step is extremely important because it has to reflect the proper taxonomy of the missions of the organization so that the ensuing efforts are most useful. Overarching Figure 1.1 in Chapter 1 portrays several functions (testing and measurements; model development and use; and services to NASA program
offices, U.S. policy organizations, and international entities) in three mission areas (protect the spacecraft, protect the space environment, and protect people on Earth).
While the NASA MMOD programs are truly high-end service support units, the models that are maintained and applied provide a uniquely value-based perspective as to the importance of the programs, and so the evolution of the key models (e.g., SBM, ORDEM, LEGEND, BUMPER, ORSAT, DAS, and others) would be of significant relevance in a strategic plan. While this may not be the exact framework the NASA MMOD programs would want to follow, it has a level of resolution sufficient to make a strategic plan meaningful.
2. Where do we want to go? Goals in each of the areas need to be examined explicitly and concrete metrics for success developed, along with associated timelines.
3. How are we going to get there? (This question includes funding.) The NASA MMOD programs have benefited from and contributed to multi-agency and multi-national activities over the years, and so an explanation of how to leverage associated activities should be included. Given this report’s highlighting of several areas where expanded efforts would be warranted (see Box 12.1) the funding required to meet the goals laid out in Step 2 should be detailed with clear priorities identified in case full funding cannot be provided by NASA.
4. How do we measure how we are doing? It is critical to provide within the strategic plan a means to determine the organization’s progress in achieving the objectives of the strategic plan. While the resources to support the MMOD programs have not grown commensurate with the scope and severity of the meteoroid and debris hazard, an ongoing assessment process should be developed that permits NASA to gauge NASA MMOD programs’ capability not only to meet the original strategic plan’s goals but also to respond dynamically to the ever-changing space environment, by having progress tied to environmental and operational needs. This feature is critical to a strategic plan that is supposed to create operationally viable support services for addressing an environmental issue that continues to evolve and grow.
Although a solid strategic plan provides a great roadmap of what an organization plans to accomplish over a reasonable period of time (probably in the 5- to 10-year timeframe), it should also focus on how these activities will be completed. The strategic plan needs to address the establishment of consistent means to communicate technical findings, uncertainty analyses, and operational consequences regarding the MMOD environment. Noting budget realities within the plan might help focus its priorities. Regular cooperative and collaborative gatherings should be part of the strategic plan’s execution, to provide opportunities both for NASA MMOD work to be regularly communicated to the aerospace community and for the research and model development to be peer reviewed and validated. In the past, NASA administrative policies have curtailed this aspect of its MMOD activities, to the detriment of the MMOD programs. The reality that the NASA MMOD programs contribute uniquely to the national and international aerospace community should be reflected in an appropriate emphasis on the programs, an emphasis that includes an allocation of resources from the NASA administration sufficient to ensure regular and substantive communication, cooperation, and collaboration in MMOD-related activities.
Recommendation: NASA should develop a formal strategic plan that provides the basis for prioritizing the allocation of funds and effort over various MMOD program needs. Among the potential research needs and management issues to be considered is the selection listed in Box 12.1. The strategic plan should consider short- and long-term objectives, a schedule of benchmark achievements to be accomplished, and priorities among them. Stakeholders should be engaged to help develop and review this plan. Finally, the MMOD strategic plan should be revised and updated at regular intervals.
Research Needs and Management Issues to Be Considered in the Formulation of an MMOD Strategic Plan
Throughout this report, the committee identifies various areas of potential research and a number of management actions that would strengthen NASA’s meteoroid and orbital debris (MMOD) programs. Adoption of a strategic plan of the sort envisioned by the committee would require evaluation and prioritization of these areas and activities, which include the following:
1. Perform radar cross-section calibrations using fragments from a large range of materials used in modern satellites and rocket bodies, as well as non-fragmentation debris. (Chapter 2)
2. Expand the environment measurement program to include use of in situ sensors to monitor the flux of debris smaller than a few millimeters. (Chapter 2)
3. Expand efforts to more accurately model sources of debris. (Chapter 3)
4. Develop criteria or a schedule for the regular release of updates to NASA’s orbital debris- and meteoroid-related models. (Chapter 3)
5. Establish a base effort to evaluate major environmental uncertainties in three areas: (a) meteoroid velocity distributions, (b) flux of meteoroids of larger sizes (greater than 100 microns), and (c) impact plasma effects. (Chapter 4)
6. Adopt a single model of the meteoroid environment for official use. (Chapter 4)
7. Pursue improving the understanding of the hazards posed by interplanetary meteoroids. (Chapter 4)
8. Expand research on meteoroids to include an understanding of the possible link between spacecraft electrical anomalies and major meteor showers. (Chapter 4)
9. Perform a broad integrative analysis of the various risks posed by meteoroids and orbital debris (whether probabilistic risk analysis or some alternative). (Chapter 5)
10. Identify major areas of uncertainty in current environmental models and risk assessments, and develop test plans and analyses to reduce that uncertainty. (Chapter 5)
11. Undertake an effort to refine models for predicting impact damage using a statistics-based approach. (Chapter 6)
12. Undertake an effort to re-derive the ballistic limit equations in the BUMPER code using a statistics-based approach that would provide information regarding uncertainty bounds and/or confidence intervals. (Chapter 6)
13. Increase efforts to characterize the damage resulting from impacts of orbital debris of various particle shapes and densities. (Chapter 6)
14. Expand program plans to include the technology, political, and legal considerations necessary to increase international cooperation on mitigation and remediation measures to stabilize the orbital debris environment. (Chapter 7)
15. In regard to reentry risks, re-examine how thresholds for ground injury effects are estimated and provide confidence bounds and uncertainty assessments. (Chapter 8)
16. Develop a research plan for (a) assessing the impact of the inaccuracy in the uncertainty in computing the probability of collision and in the ensuing risk assessment and (b) improving the accuracy of the computation of the probability of collision in the presence of these uncertainty errors. (Chapter 9)
17. Initiate an effort to record, analyze, report, and share data on satellite anomalies in order to better quantify the risk from orbital debris particulates too small to be cataloged yet large enough to disrupt space operations. (Chapter 10)
18. Continue to engage the private sector, U.S. federal agencies, and international agencies in developing cooperation and political will to effectively address issues regarding orbital debris. (Chapter 11)
19. Identify budget requirements and areas of responsibilities, including personnel and a single point of contact, for maintaining a viable program as budgets and personnel change. (Chapter 12)
20. Schedule periodic technical assessments written for policy makers and stakeholders. (Chapter 12)
21. Continue to emphasize the long-term objectives of the MMOD programs through public discussions and improved long-term models. (Chapter 13)
22. Monitor and inventory the costs of debris avoidance, mitigation, surveillance, and reporting over time. (Chapter 13)