The real debris problem
The article, “Dodging Debris,” by Paul Marks in the July/August issue of Aerospace America threw me a curve ball. With a title like that and two-page graphic of low-Earth orbit, I thought the article would be about the critical issue of orbital debris. I was wrong. The article was about the risk of aircraft hitting surviving orbital debris during flight. The article’s introduction quotes safety engineers as saying, “a vigorous search for solutions is necessary, right now.” Really? That hit me like writing an article about the risk of falling debris when your ocean liner is sinking.
For anyone paying attention, the real problem is a cascading series of satellites or orbital debris hitting existing and newly created debris in orbit, usually referred to as the Kessler Syndrome. Those calling attention to this acute issue include Moriba Jah on the pages of this magazine, as well as Hugh Lewis, Thomas Schildknecht and Jonathan McDowell. However, most people are not paying attention, and some choose to ignore it because “It’s bad for business.” Those calling attention to this issue recognize that it is a super-wicked problem: Time is running out, there is no central authority, those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it, and policies discount the future irrationality.
There are roughly 2,200 operational satellites in orbit, plus roughly 30,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 centimeters. Once a major collision occurs, either by accident, gross negligence, or malicious intent, there is no return. With the resulting economic, national security, social and political chaos, I suspect that worldwide leadership will claim “plausible deniability.” It’s the in thing.
A better focus
The September 2021 issue contains articles on three subjects — Mach 5 air travel, billionaires going to space and electric vertical takeoff and landing urban air mobility vehicles — that highlight how much the aerospace industry is built around the needs — or fantasies — of wealthy and uber-wealthy individuals. Our world is facing some critical challenges, including most importantly global climate change, and these challenges disproportionately impact low-income individuals around the world. The cover story on “Jet fuel from smokestacks” was encouraging in this regard. But we need to see more articles like this, focusing on how the aerospace industry is tackling critical issues that affect broad segments of the world’s population and focus less on small niche applications of aerospace technology that only impact the 1% — or 0.001% — crowd.
Kyle K. Wetzel
AIAA associate fellow