Jim Bridenstine is on a mission to preserve and manage space for future expansion, and to build a regulatory structure while watching out for any existential threats. His message is that space for all requires more careful development going forward, and we as a nation need to do what is right.
Speaking during the opening session of SATELLITE 2022 on March 22, former NASA administrator and now board member of The Aerospace Company, Bridenstine began with a cautionary note about the serious issue of space debris which is quickly becoming more of a danger to every country on Earth that relies on space and has satellites in space.
“The thing I hear that affects everybody and will continue to affect everybody basically in perpetuity — it will never end — is the issue of space debris,” he said. “We're in a situation now where all of us in this room who are involved in space have a responsibility now more than ever to do what is right when we think about the space debris situation, especially in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) where the regulatory environment frankly is not where it needs to be.”
He pointed out that if a company launches a constellation of 15,000 satellites, about 1.5 percent of the satellites will be derelict, and unable to deorbit and maneuver. “They become, in essence, space debris,” he said. “But friends, that's not where it ends. That's where it starts.”
Bridenstine called out the fact that there is unknown collision risk for operational satellites, not just defunct ones. “There's still a collision risk associated with the satellites. But that collision risk is not assessed,” he said. “Nobody knows what that collision risk is, and that's a really big deal.”
Space debris management and understanding is a challenge that all satellite companies have to rise to, Bridenstine said. “We have to think about — What is it going to take to preserve space, not just for this generation, but for generations to come?”
Bridenstine then turned the discussion to what can be done within the government to help with this issue. “We need to make sure that what we do is right as a nation, so that we actually get an agency whose role is to make sure that space is safe for the rest of us, and [it] needs to be funded,” he said. “Congress needs to step up to the plate and take steps that are necessary for the safe operation of all space activities.”
Bridenstine spoke about the importance of the International Space Station going forward, noting that more than $100 billion of public money has been invested in this project over the years. “It is important for us as a nation to make sure that the International Space Station continues through 2030. That has been agreed to in a bipartisan way in Congress.”
People can get temperamental when talking about the space station, he said, because it is necessary as a nation to preserve this important asset. “It's important for our future activity for commercial human spaceflight,” he said. “We are not going to recreate another International Space Station. We have to preserve this as an institution.”
After laying out the scenarios about space debris and space safety, Bridenstine took a more upbeat tone. “The future is very bright,” he said. “Because I know that we're going to do the right things. There is a limit to how much you can put into any orbital regime. What we have to do is to consider what that limit is. Right now, it's on a first come, first served basis.”
People around the world know that the United States, like many other countries, is dependent on space capabilities, he said. Some of those countries are not friendly to the U.S. “[Adversaries] are creating capabilities to make it an existential threat to our way of life,” he said. “What we have to recognize is that we are in fact dependent on space, and because of that, we need to preserve it. A lot of times, we're not preserving it. And the U.S. government is not properly equipped to regulate all of these activities.
“We need to make sure that there's competition, and that the regulatory regimes that are established ensure that competition is there and that it continues,” Bridenstine said. “Because ultimately, that's how the consumer benefits. That's how the market works. Then, of course, the goal here is to use space to benefit all of our lives.” VS