Getting the public to care about space debris

I read Moriba Jah’s column “Please Look Up” (February 2022) with great interest and would like to offer some wisdom from decades of experience viewing the public square. He is correct that people will only pay attention to a problem if they see it as harming them; they are too busy fighting the alligators next to their boat to be able to look at ones farther away.

Dr. Jah mentioned various ways to capture the public’s attention. Appeals to altruism will sometimes work, but only when people can afford to be altruistic. Alarmism will only have a negative effect. The alarmist predictions of climate change activists over the last few decades are largely responsible for skepticism over current predictions. Saying “but this time I really mean it” does not restore credibility. 

Dr. Jah is correct that it will take a cataclysmic event to wake people up to the problem of space debris, but his example of astronauts in the International Space Station having to take refuge hardly qualifies. The good news is that the cataclysmic event need not cost human lives: The 1994 collisions of pieces of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter, photographed by NASA’s Galileo orbiter and other spacecraft, provided a wake-up call for society and led to the creation of NASA’s planetary defense program.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jah misreads the message of Genesis. Humanity’s original sin was trying to make ourselves into gods, not the denial of our connection to the rest of the universe. A better approach when appealing to Genesis would be to point out that God made us to be stewards of creation and that littering low-Earth orbit is bad stewardship.

John F. Fay

AIAA Associate Fellow

Freeport, Florida 

Getting the public to care about space debris