Hearing :: 4/28/2009 :: Keeping the Space Environment Safe for Civil and Commercial Users

Opening Statement By Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords

Good afternoon and welcome to today’s hearing of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.

To quote the late Kurt Vonnegut, “the universe is a big place…”

That’s why it was such a surprise to me and many others when we heard the news that two satellites had collided in orbit in February of this year.

It was hard to believe that space had gotten that crowded.

It was equally difficult to believe that nothing could have been done to prevent the collision, given that one of the satellites was active and by all accounts would have had the capability to maneuver out of harm’s way.

But the collision did happen.

And the resulting increase in space debris has made the space environment more hazardous to civil and commercial satellites and spacecraft alike for years to come.

It’s now almost three months later.

As someone who serves on both the Science and Technology Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, I want to know where things stand, and what we’re going to do to keep such an event from happening again.

For example, how confident can we be that we aren’t going to face a similar hazardous situation in the near future between a commercial satellite and a U.S.- or other nation’s government spacecraft?

Equally importantly, what assurance can we have that there will be adequate warning of a potential collision before it is too late to do anything about it?

How do DoD, NASA, the commercial space operators, and other spacefaring nations coordinate to minimize the threat of such occurrences, and is the information on space debris and potential collisions getting to the people who need it when they need it?

In short, was the February collision a fluke that couldn’t have been avoided, or do we need to improve our national—and international—capabilities for keeping the space environment safe for civil and commercial users?

If so, what is needed, and how do we go about getting it put in place?

We hope to get answers to these and other important questions at today’s hearing, and I believe we have a good panel of witnesses to help us in our oversight of this important issue.

One thing is already clear—the space environment is getting increasingly crowded due to the relentless growth of space debris.

As our witnesses will testify, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network is currently tracking more than 19,000 objects that are in orbit around the Earth.

In addition, it is estimated there are more than 300,000 pieces of debris as small as half-inch in size orbiting the Earth.

That’s a lot of debris! And of course there is the temporary bump-up in the amount of debris that results whenever the odd astronaut spatula or toolkit floats away from the International Space Station…

It is clear that if the spacefaring nations of the world don’t take steps to minimize the growth of space junk, we may eventually face a situation where low Earth orbit becomes a risky place to carry out civil and commercial space activities.

I want to avoid that kind of space future if we can, and this hearing is going to be an important milestone in that effort.

With that, I want again want to welcome our distinguished panel of witnesses, and I look forward to your testimony.

I now want to recognize Mr. Olson for any opening remarks he may care to make.

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