Protecting America’s High Ground: A Public–Private Response to Space Debris

– Executive Summary –

Uncontrolled debris in orbit poses the greatest risk to U.S. satellites in orbit and the capabilities they provide. A sustained loss of services provided by satellite technology will have a significant negative impact on the nation’s homeland security. The areas impacted include communication, financial transactions, intelligence gathering, internet access, and weather surveillance.[1] Domestic and international policy decisions have been ineffective in slowing the growth of the debris population. This ineffectiveness has created an orbital environment in which the removal of large debris from congested orbits through active debris removal (ADR) is now necessary to prevent future collision events that will damage or destroy operational satellites and may possibly render certain regions of space unusable for generations. The National Space Council needs to develop a domestic ADR program to begin removing the most dangerous debris objects from orbit to mitigate the threat debris poses to U.S. assets in space.

The United States has been slow to act regarding debris remediation due to policy decisions. The United States was the first nation to generate a list of best practices to reduce debris-generating events known as mitigation standard practices.[2] However, these practices were not mandated and were therefore unenforceable. Complying with these standards may have resulted in a financial burden to satellite operators who may need to carry extra fuel to deorbit their satellite upon its end-of-life. Other nations and the United Nations (UN) eventually adopted mitigation practices as well; however, international community compliance with these practices has been lacking.[3] This lack of compliance has contributed significantly to the current state of the debris population. The United States is aware the debris population is growing, and mitigation alone is insufficient, yet no policy action has been taken to combat this threat. The current orbital environment is at risk of experiencing one or more catastrophic collision events, yet no action has been taken to prevent it. Congress must pass a Clean Space Act to establish regulatory authority to enforce mitigation standards and fund a domestic remediation program.

NASA developed the public-private partnership model for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The goal of this effort was to provide cargo resupply services to the international space station (ISS) following the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010.[4] Following directives from the Bush Administration to turn over routine services to the commercial sector, NASA selected Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital Sciences) as partners in developing resupply spacecraft. An analysis conducted within NASA found this program model resulted in significantly lower development costs for the required spacecraft.[5] An example is the development of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster, which was developed at a cost of one-quarter of the best estimate of previous NASA methods.[6] Further, the fact that the commercial partners retained ownership of the systems developed within the program allowed these systems to be sold commercially. Thus, commercial partners received additional revenue, which created new jobs and tax revenue. Research shows the tax revenue from follow-on commercial sales of these systems has paid for initial public investment in these systems.[7] The success of COTS led to public-private partnerships being used in the Commercial Crew and Lunar Artemis programs currently under development.[8]

NASA’s investment into the commercial space sector has resulted in greater competition and new innovation in a once stagnant sector. Large aerospace companies launching mainly government payloads had dominated the commercial launch industry. The lack of a diverse customer base and competition kept launch prices high.[9] The entry of SpaceX, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, and others has forced established launch providers, such as United Launch Alliance (ULA), to innovate and evolve to stay competitive.[10] This new marketplace and resulting innovation provide a strong pool of talent for NASA with which to partner. Additionally, the private sector has achieved great success in the related field of on-orbit servicing (OOS), a mission that requires similar capabilities to that of ADR missions. Northrop Grumman’s subsidiary SpaceLogistics has demonstrated an operational capability to rendezvous and dock with satellites in geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) with its mission extension vehicle (MEV).[11] This spacecraft’s success has resulted in a partnership with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a spacecraft capable of servicing satellites in GEO to provide further evidence that the strength of the commercial sector can be leveraged to pursue complex space capabilities.[12]

The goal of this remediation partnership should be the remediation of U.S.-owned debris objects between 775 km and 1,500 km in altitude. Four separate orbits appear between these altitudes that present different risks; however, the literature shows this area of space has the highest likelihood of collision along with producing the most catastrophic collisions regarding the amount of debris generated.[13] Targeting only U.S.-owned debris prevents the violation of established international agreements and will allow for a quicker development of capabilities, as well as for potential future expansion internationally. Between inoperable satellites and derelict rocket bodies, the United States owns 41 objects at these altitudes that pose a collision risk.[14] These objects are the initial target list for the program. While related literature states multiple objects need to be remediated to reduce the risk of collision, this program must focus on the removal of these objects due to their mass and the population density of debris in these orbits.[15] Any capabilities developed in the program can be scaled up later to achieve the desired frequency of remediation missions while pursuing international cooperation to clear foreign debris objects in orbit.

The framework for a domestic ADR program should be a public-private partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the commercial space sector. NASA has used this model of program management and technology development over the last 15 years. This partnership model, where both NASA and participating commercial partners share the development costs of program spacecraft, has reduced costs through reduced public sector oversight and leveraging private sector innovation and construction efficiency.[16] Additionally, the framework of the partnership allows the commercial partner to retain ownership of the developed systems that allows partners to sell services commercially using these systems.[17] These benefits are not possible in a traditional NASA program when systems are procured from the commercial sector using FAR contracts and specific design specifications.

A partnership with the private sector has the ability to reduce the threat of debris to American satellites. It will also allow the United States to maintain its role as a leader in space and demonstrate good stewardship of the orbital environment. This partnership will also open up new markets and revenue streams in the field of remediation services. The number of commercial satellites being launched is growing, and remediation services may become a large component of the commercial space market. A partnership will allow U.S. companies to take leadership in this effort and keep jobs and tax revenue in the country instead of overseas. The result of this partnership will be a safer environment for U.S. satellites and will jump-start U.S. commercial space companies in the ADR marketplace. Inaction will result in an ever-increasing likelihood that satellite services will be compromised as the number of satellites in orbits grows. The United States needs to begin remediation and should partner with the private sector.

A catastrophic collision in orbit and the resulting fragmentation could impact the space around the planet for generations. This type of collision is not unlike a nuclear meltdown accident or environmental oil spill. Those events have the capability of rendering areas uninhabitable for generations. A series of cascading collisions could do the same to the space around the Earth, only this area would be uninhabitable by satellites. A degradation of services in nearly all aspects of modern life would be the result. Experts are warning the United States about this type of disaster and state immediate action is needed to prevent such an event. Congress and NASA have the resources and the authority to act. It is their responsibility to act in the best interest of the public, as it is negligent to leave America’s critical space-based assets vulnerable to this known threat. The U.S. government cannot plead ignorance on this issue. In the event that such a collision event would occur, the public would want to know why more was not done to prevent such a catastrophe; especially one that experts warned was possible. The United States must begin the development of an ADR capability, and the public-private partnership model established by NASA should be the framework for that effort.

[1] Bryce Space and Technology, Satellites Key to $5T+ Across U.S. Economy (Alexandria, VA: Bryce Space and Technology, 2019), 2,; Chadwick D. Igl et al., “568 Balls in the Air: Planning for the Loss of Space Capabilities,” Joint Forces Quarterly, no. 90 (2018): 2,

[2] J.-C. Liou, “Orbital Debris Briefing” (Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President/Office of Science and Technology Policy (EOP/OSTP) Briefing, December 8, 2017), 4,

[3] J.-C. Liou, “Orbital Debris Briefing,” 9; ESA Space Debris Office, ESA’s Annual Space Environment Report (Darmstadt, Germany: European Space Agency, 2020), 87,

[4] National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Commercial Orbital Transportation Services: A New Era in Spaceflight, Illustrated (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2014), 2.

[5] Edgar Zapata, “An Assessment of Cost Improvements in the NASA COTS—CRS Program and Implications for Future NASA Missions,” in AIAA Space 2017 Conference (Orlando, FL: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2017), 23, 24,

[6] National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle NAFCOM Cost Estimates (Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2011), 8-9,

[7] Zapata, “An Assessment of Cost Improvements in the NASA COTS,” 25.

[8] Sean Potter, “NASA Astronauts Launch from America in Test of SpaceX Crew Dragon,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, May 30, 2020,; and “NASA Announces New Moon Partnerships with U.S. Companies,” November 29, 2018, NASA, YouTube, video, 3:20,

[9] Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, Commercial Space Opportunities (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987), 54, ProQuest; Bruce D. Berkowitz, “Energizing the Space Launch Industry,” Issues in Science and Technology 6, no. 2 (1989): 79-80.

[10] Irene Klotz, “SpaceX Undercut ULA Rocket Launch Pricing by 40 Percent: U.S. Air Force,” Reuters, April 28, 2016,

[11] Elizabeth Howell, “Two Private Satellites Just Docked in Space in Historic First for Orbital Servicing,” Space, February 27, 2020,

[12] Sandra Erwin, “DARPA Picks Northrop Grumman as Its Commercial Partner for Satellite Servicing Program,” SpaceNews, March 4, 2020,

[13] A. Rossi, A. Petit, and D. McKnight, “Examining Short-Term Space Safety Effects from LEO Constellations and Clusters,” v. 2109, in First International Orbital Debris Conference (Sugar Land, TX: Lunar Planetary Institute, 2019), 3,

[14] Darren McKnight, Rohit Arora, and Rachel Witner, “Intact Derelict Deposition Study,” in First International Orbital Debris Conference (Sugar Land, TX: Lunar Planetary Institute, 2019), 6,

[15] Donald J. Kessler et al., “The Kessler Syndrome: Implications to Future Space Operations,” Advances in Astronautical Sciences 137, no. 8 (2010): 14; Rossi, Petit, and McKnight, “Examining Short-Term Space Safety Effects,” 8.

[16] Zapata, “An Assessment of Cost Improvements in the NASA COTS,” 23-24.

[17] National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, 12, 22.

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