Episode 75 – The Orbital Space Debris Project

Episode #75
Original Air Date: 02.15.2019

32 Minutes

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Our Guest This Episode: Dr. Heather M. Cowardin

Millions of bits of space debris create a serious threat. And, no one knows space junk as well as this project manager, our guest Dr. Heather M. Cowardin. Heather is director of the NASA JSC Optical Measurement Center. Heather serves as the Section Manager and PM for the Orbital Debris Research Section under the Science & Exploration Department of the JETS contract with NASA Johnson Space Center. She also leads the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office R&D task group. What do these titles mean? Heather can confidently call herself the Space Janitor!

In this Velociteach podcast, Dr. Cowardin sheds light on the problem of orbital space debris and the role of her office in the measurement, assessment, and mitigation of this dangerous debris. Hear about NASA’s Optical Measurement Program, and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. On the lighter side, we ask Heather to compare the experience of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in the movie Gravity to the reality of space debris. Is it just like the movie?

We also ask Heather about her experience as a project manager on Ascension Island, and the unique constraints of working in that remote location. From 2012-2016, Heather served as the Optical Measurements Group lead, where she oversaw the effort to establish the John Africano NASA-AFRL OD Observatory on Ascension Island. This observatory helps track space debris. Heather gives excellent advice on how to manage communication challenges between scientific and non-scientific colleagues or stakeholders, and between different cultures during international collaborations.

What about the future? Our team asks how the orbital debris problem is mitigated and future satellite population regulated? Finally, hear Heather’s astute advice for younger PM’s starting their career path.

Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:

“But we need to figure out a way to kind of control its growth and make sure that all space users can utilize the space environment. And that’s the best we can do right now.”

- Heather Cowardin

“And if I want to be able to have Internet and have my GPS ………….we need to do something about this. We need to figure out how to regulate this better.”

- Heather Cowardin

“…it’s going to require the entire international community to step up and start following some of these rules and regulations put in place on mitigating the growth of orbital debris.”

- Heather Cowardin

“…it’s very helpful to have a mentor. ……. Learn from others. Learn from your own mistakes. And don’t be afraid to step up and be that mentor for the younger generation.”

- Heather Cowardin

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Table of Contents

00:59 … Meet Heather
02:46 … Orbital Space Debris
04:10 … LEO and GEO
04:41 … Policy Standards
06:14 … Regulating/Interagency Debris Coordination Committee
08:24 … Assessing and Mitigation
10:24 … Coordinating with Multiple Teams
11:38 … OSD Observatory on Ascension Island
15:53 … Effective Communication
18:26 … Is There an End to this Project?
24:09 … Career Advice
25:57 … Measuring Success
27:31 … Learn More
29:03 … The Bill and Nick Wrap Up

HEATHER COWARDIN:  But we need to figure out a way to kind of control its growth and make sure that all space users can utilize the space environment.  And that’s the best we can do right now.

NICK WALKER:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  Every couple of weeks we meet right here and have a conversation about what matters to you in the field of project management.  We talk with real people, doing real jobs, and find out what makes them successful and what keeps them motivated.

I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are the chief motivators, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates.  And Bill, for those who have ever said that the sky is the limit with what we do around here, well, they may need to rethink that perspective a little.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, they’re in for a treat today.  Heather is going to talk to us about the orbital space debris issue that I didn’t even know existed.  This is going to be exciting stuff.

Meet Heather

NICK WALKER:  We all know how much we rely on satellites in orbit around the Earth.  These provide us with services such as navigation, meteorology, climate research, telecommunication, and human space exploration.  Unfortunately, with increasing space activities, a new and sort of unexpected hazard has started to emerge:  space debris.

Dr. Heather M. Cowardin serves as the section manager and project manager for the Orbital Debris Research Section under the Science and Exploration Department of the JETS Contract with NASA Johnson Space Center.  She also leads the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office Research and Development Task Group.

Dr. Cowardin, it’s an honor to have you with us here on Manage This.  Can we start out just getting to know you a little bit better?  How did you get to where you are today?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Well, I guess let’s go all the way back a couple of decades and talk about my childhood dream.  I wanted to be Batman, a garbage collector, or an astronaut.  And here we are, a couple decades later, and I feel like I’ve hit at least two of those three points.  I’m a superhero trying to protect space assets in space from garbage.  So not doing too bad.

NICK WALKER:  Excellent.

HEATHER COWARDIN:  So I guess where I kind of got to from there is I went to space camp in seventh grade after I won a fellowship from the Society of Women Engineers.  I was going to school at University of Houston, got an internship that turned into a full-time job, that turned into basically being a lead, into a deputy manager, into a full-on manager, to here we are now.  So been at NASA a good 15 years.

NICK WALKER:  So you’re concentrating on space debris.  I think this is something that maybe escapes the radar of a lot of people.

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Aha.  See what you did there.

Orbital Space Debris

NICK WALKER:  Yeah.  What is orbital space debris?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Right.  So it’s any manmade object that no longer serves a useful purpose.  So what does that mean?  Spent upper stages.  Mission-related debris.  Carriers for multiple payloads.  Even something as small as paint flakes, those can be very damaging.

NICK WALKER:  How much of it is there?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  There’s about 19,000 objects in space right now that are greater than 10 centimeters.  That threshold is basically the limit of where our sensors can track debris.  But in general there’s probably a good 23,000 or plus that are greater than 10 centimeters, 500,000 that are in the one centimeter range, and a good hundred million that are about the size of a grain of salt.  This is a serious problem.

ANDY CROWE:  And I guess this stuff is moving at high velocities in some cases?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Yeah.  They’re going about 10 kilometers per second in LEO.  So in order to kind of get that into real world terms, that’s about 36,000 kilometers per hour.  And the speed of a bullet is 2,500 kilometers per hour.


BILL YATES:  Heather, you mentioned LEO.  Tell us what is LEO, and what is GEO?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  So LEO is Low Earth Orbit.  GEO is Geosynchronous Earth Orbit.  LEO goes up to about 2,000 kilometers in altitude, and then GEO is about 36,000 kilometers in altitude.  Between there we have this MEO region.  Not the same thing as some of your fantasy novels with Middle Earth, but it’s between LEO and GEO.  It’s kind of where some of our maybe GPS satellites that we rely on every day situate.

NICK WALKER:  I’m curious about, you know, what do we do about this?  I mean, it’s out there.  How do we go get it?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Our office, the Orbital Debris Program Office, we’re not in the program of going and getting debris.  We’re more on measuring, assessing, assessing the models, and then mitigating it via policies and standards.

Policy Standards

ANDY CROWE:  Now, this is great stuff for project managers because people, well, people overlook this quite a bit.  They forget how things like policies and standards can have life-changing impact.  So say more about that.  Tell me how that would come to fruition.  Because it sounds a lot more exciting if you would put some zapper in space and identify the objects and disintegrate them.  But there’s another way to go about this problem.  So I love this.

HEATHER COWARDIN:  So we have several standards and requirements that NASA leads and publishes.  One, for example, is the U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standards Practices.  The four objects within this practice are to, one, control of debris released during normal operations; two, to minimize debris generated by accidental explosions; three, selection of safe flight profile and operational configuration; and four is post-mission disposal of space structures.  So this is at a national political level, and international communities will generally try to follow what we’re presenting.

Regulating/Interagency Debris Coordination Committee

ANDY CROWE:  So let me ask you a question.  With the international community, how many countries are active in space at this point, would you estimate?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Ooh.  I don’t think I can answer that.  I could tell you how many are participating in the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee.


HEATHER COWARDIN:  And that’s 13 members.  So that’s Italy; France; the China National Space Administration; the Canadian Space Agency; the German Aerospace Center; European Space Agency; the Indian Space Research Organization; the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; Korea; NASA; Roscosmos, that’s Russia; the State Space Agency of Ukraine; and the U.K., UKSA.  So this has an international effect, and we’re all working to try to mitigate the growth and generation of orbital debris.

BILL YATES:  Heather, we saw the movie “Gravity,” and we saw the impact of this space junk on Sandra Bullock.  It almost took her out; right?  So we get it.  This is a problem for everyone.  Yet we’ve got the need to have satellites; right?  I need my phone to work.  I need my GPS to work.  So there’s this natural tension.  You must get used to living in that tension of we need more satellites up there, but they need to have a safe space in which to operate.

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Right.  And I guess, you know, the thing about “Gravity” that I really liked, among the many things I didn’t like from a physics perspective, was how many students out there had no idea what space debris or orbital debris was.  Probably not a lot.  But as Hollywood and as falsified as this movie was, it got the point.  Everybody now knows the words “space debris,” and now we’re starting to think about it.

And now we have students from ages elementary, junior high, to high school that are trying to figure out how do we fix this problem.  Maybe they’re unreasonable, but now we’ve got the entire community starting to think about, okay, this is an issue.  And if I want to be able to have Internet and have my GPS for life of my – everybody’s life, we need to do something about this.  We need to figure out how to regulate this better.

Assessing and Mitigation

ANDY CROWE:  So regulation, policy, mitigation is one avenue.  Are you aware of any projects to actually remove space junk?  Are there any that are active right now?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  The most I can say about that is the Orbital Debris Program Office, we do measurements, modeling, and mitigation.  We don’t do remediation.  Remediation is not something – no single agency or country can solve the debris problem alone.  We work with other countries and international organizations to develop mitigation strategies and standards that reduce the generation of orbital debris, as I mentioned earlier.  But the remediation of the near-Earth space environment will not necessarily involve, not only a multi-agency approach, but an international effort.  And there’s different countries and private companies that are looking into this.

ANDY CROWE:  So is most of this currently in a stable orbit?  Or is it in a decaying orbit?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  It depends where you are in altitude.  Things in LEO will generally reenter, depending on where they are, within days, months, what have you.  But the higher you go in altitude, the less drag you have, which means things are going to be up there until our great-great-great-great-great-grandkids are born.  So some of these things just cannot come down naturally.

NICK WALKER:  It’s just mind-boggling to me that you can identify the sizes of all the space debris, and the types.  Do you actually know at any given time where each of these little pieces is?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  So just a point of clarification, our office isn’t interested in the little specks here and there.  We want a statistical assessment of the environment, we want to know what was it a couple years ago. Starting with Sputnik in 1957 to where we are today, where is it going to be tomorrow, where is it going to be in a hundred years.  We want an environmental engineering model that is continuously evolving.  We don’t track individual pieces, we want a statistical model.

Coordinating with Multiple Teams

BILL YATES:  Heather, one of the things that I think some of our project managers can relate to is the fact that the project that you lead and the efforts that you are in charge of, you’re having to coordinate that with many, not only other countries, but also with other U.S. agencies, including the military.  What advice do you have for other project managers when it comes to, okay, how do I control sensitive data?  What expectations do I set for my team?  And then how do I follow that out?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  So I work very closely with NASA, and we have what we would call “interagency working groups” where maybe we start with the interagency.  We start with NASA, the DOD, the FAA, the FCC.  And we start with small, work in small groups, get to a common goal.  What do we want to do?  And then present that at international forums and present that and see if you can get the international community to kind of step up and see where you as a NASA, or sorry, as a U.S. government agency, want to go.  But I think really the key to project managers, start small.  Build your core team, and then step up into the more larger, the international communities.

Orbital Debris Observatory on Ascension Island

NICK WALKER:  Yeah, one of the projects that you worked on was to help establish an Orbital Debris Observatory on Ascension Island.  What goes on there?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  You know, it’s funny you ask that because my team is out there right now on Ascension.  So the first question people ask is, “I’m embarrassed to admit this.  Where is Ascension?”  And I say, “In the middle of the Atlantic nowhere.”  So if you go onto Google, it’s about 7 degrees south from the Equator in the middle of the Atlantic.  And the reason we put it there is because it fills a gap in the space surveillance network that they can’t cover just because of that location.

So you had asked what does it do?  It’s an optical telescope.  It has a double horseshoe equatorial mount.  It’s a modified Ritchey–Chrétien.  And I get it, most of you all have just – I just lost you all.  So it’s basically two mirrors where the incoming light reflects off the primary, reflects back to the secondary, and then comes down to the camera.  Unlike natural and our what I would say more astronomical telescopes, where you point at a star, and you watch it, we don’t care about stars.  That’s noise.  We want it out of our way.

So we do something where we call it a “modified” or a “counter sidereal time-delayed integration,” so that we shift our electrical optical components backwards.  So all those little pieces of debris out there now look like point sources when we’re tracking, and the stars are just streaming by us.  And so what we do is we assess the population in GEO.

BILL YATES:  Heather, I was cracking up when I was researching before our conversation.  I have, I’ll just go ahead and admit, I have not been to Ascension Island, nor have I even – I didn’t know where it was, so I looked it up.  And I see…

NICK WALKER:  Did you Google it, too?  Yeah, so did I.

BILL YATES:  Oh, I did.  And that was so cool.  So that is like the first time I’ve googled something, and it still showed me the entire globe.  It’s in a perspective to see, okay, it’s this little pinpoint right here.

ANDY CROWE:  Do they have an airport there?  Do you sail there?


ANDY CROWE:  How do you get there?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  I’m Batman.  I fly.

NICK WALKER:  Oh, yeah.

ANDY CROWE:  Of course.

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Just joking.  So there used to be a ship that would come in that was an option for you to get there.  But primarily it’s 100 percent flights now.  We used to be able to go through London, through the RAF, so flying to London, RAF directly to Ascension.  That was a, you know, good 24 hours of flight time total.  But currently we fly out of Patrick Air Force Base in Florida to Antigua, to Ascension Island.  So that’s not quite as long.  But it’s a three-week stint.  The flights only come in every two weeks.  So when you go there, you’d better bring a long-duration suitcase.

BILL YATES:  I was thinking of that, Heather, because the travel that I’ve done on projects has been mostly in the U.S.  And so I feel like I’ve been really spoiled.  If I go somewhere and I forget something that I need for our project, I can run out to the store; or make a quick purchase online, and it gets delivered to me; right?


ANDY CROWE:  I mean, you have to be so prepared.  I can imagine your checklist for packing and for your crew as you guys think of all the things that you need to take.  You must have had some interesting lessons learned from your work on Ascension Island.

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Yeah, you’re absolutely right.  We get to Ascension, and it’s like deploying in the military.  We do a Deployment Readiness Review every time before we fly out there because there’s no Home Depot.  There’s a small little store, a small little counter store or, you know, a vendor that we can pick up a couple of necessary items – shampoo, deodorant.  But it’s not going to be your favorite brand, I guarantee it.

So when you get ready to plan, you have to plan for yourself.  You have to plan for your team.  You’ve got to think, what could possibly go wrong that we might need?  I don’t know.  Update our first aid kit.  You know, simple things that you probably don’t think about when you’re traveling, that you’ve got to really think, you know, beyond five, you know, think what am I going to need in three weeks that I’m not thinking about?  There’s no pharmacy.  There is a clinic, but you’d better bring enough of your medicine and your vitamins before you fly out there.  So everything we do, it requires a lot of communication with the onsite contractors and then the staff here in Houston.

Effective Communication

BILL YATES:  Heather, you made me think of another question I’ve been dying to ask you.  So, you know, you’ve got your Ph.D.  You’ve got all this experience and education in physics.  Space physics; right?  So that’s even another level of complexity.  You work with brilliant people.  But you’ve got people like me that you have to explain this stuff to.  And so what tips do you have for people that are project managers that work in very technical areas, who need to dumb things down as they communicate with sponsors or managers or customers?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Yeah, that happens all the time.  And it’s not that it’s a different level of education, it’s just you’ve always got to be thinking about – you have to have your elevator pitch, your five-second, your 10-second elevator pitch ready to go all the time.  You never know when you’re going to walk in to, I don’t know, meet the President, and you need to tell him, you’ve got 30 seconds, what do you need to concentrate on?

So there’s a lot of training that I think most of us project managers go through where we get key terms.  What do you want to know?  Let me address it quickly and put it in very basic terms so that you’re interested because, if I come in there and start talking to you about orbital mechanics and inclination and right ascension, ascending node, I’ve lost you.  You’re already gone.  And surely you don’t want to hear about how financials, I mean, don’t let me bore you about that.

ANDY CROWE:  We do, and stop calling us Shirley.

NICK WALKER:  So you have to communicate on a lot of different levels.  Not only to dumb it down for people like us, but with other countries, too, people in other countries.  Communication has got to be a huge part of your job.

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Yes, it is.  I think one of the key collaborations going on right now is with JAXA.  And there is always a communication barrier.  There’s a time barrier, so you’re always on a telecon at the worst time, no matter what you do.


HEATHER COWARDIN:  I’m sorry, it’s the Japanese Space Agency.  So sometimes it’s very hard to communicate over the phone.  So I highly recommend, when people are in this position, is to document everything.  If it’s a PowerPoint, a Word document, whatever, Excel spreadsheet.  Document it, send it, give that country or whoever may be not understanding you time to understand it and use Google or whatever you choose to, to put it into their language, and then work that way.  I find that that’s the best way to communicate when there’s language barriers.

Is There an End to this Project?

NICK WALKER:  Something else that occurs to me is that usually when we talk to people who are project managers, we can talk about a beginning, middle, and end to a project.  When we’re talking about space debris that is up there for generations, is there ever an end to this project?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  If there’s an end, I’m out of a job; right?  Yeah.  I can tell you, I mean, we know when it started.  The Orbital Debris Program Office, you know, it’s been around since 1979.  So we have a beginning.  We know Sputnik was the first launch.  We know that’s a beginning.  Are we at the middle?  I don’t know.  Is there an end?  Probably not.  But we need to figure out a way to kind of control its growth and make sure that all space users can utilize the space environment.  And that’s the best we can do right now.

ANDY CROWE:  It’s interesting because I’m a sailor, as well.  And one of the problems in the ocean is it’s collecting an immense amount of garbage, and particularly plastic.  It’s becoming – that’s getting a lot of heightened visibility these days.  A lot of people are aware.  But there are enormous patches where this dominates the ocean.  And there’s not a great solution for it.  And when you look at that problem, I’m a little bit fatalistic about it because I feel like it’s only going to get worse.  Nobody’s come up with a plan to make it better.  It concerns me as we talk that the problem with space junk is only going to increase as activity in space increases, at least right now.  Does that seem the same to you?  Or do you see hope on the horizon?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  That’s going to take a collaborative effort at an international level.  We can only do so much as a U.S. government agency.  But it’s going to require the entire international community to step up and start following some of these rules and regulations we’ve put in place on mitigating the growth of orbital debris.  I mean, what else can you do?  You can’t force an international community to do what you say.  But you can be the lead, and you can show by example how to do this.

NICK WALKER:  So what are some of the solutions that maybe are possibilities of trying to mitigate the space debris?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Well, there’s simple things like you have to reenter within X amount of time.  Make sure that you’ve protected your spacecraft so that you can perform post-mission disposal.  Which means that, once your mission is up, you need to get out of space.  If you don’t protect your spacecraft, and you can’t perform post-mission disposal, you’re just now a new piece of debris.  So there’s types of regulations like that.  In GEO we kind of push into something we call a “graveyard orbit.”  Get out of the highway.  Get out of the way so other people can get in there.

BILL YATES:  Heather, one of the things that was interesting to me – again, I’m not a scientist.  Trust me on that.  I didn’t realize, okay, if a satellite loses – if it gives in to gravity and reenters the Earth’s atmosphere, it burns up, and that’s a good thing; right?  That takes care of the problem.  And I know it’s a point of frustration, not just within the U.S., but across the globe, for okay, how do we make sure?  There are so many satellites that are going up now and in the future.  How do we make sure that people comply; that those satellites are built such that they will either reenter the Earth’s orbit or they’ll self-destruct, kind of like the “Mission Impossible” message; right?  You know, they’ll self-destruct, take care of themselves at the end of their useful life.

So as you guys continue to measure and define the problem, I see opportunity for other organizations, for for-profit organizations, to solve this problem.  As an agency, do you see a lot of collaboration with those as they come to you guys to understand the problem and look for solutions?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  We have a group here called the Safety Standards and Assessment Group.  They kind of oversee the standards and the policy.  But they also perform assessments on an as-needed case for any of the U.S. or NASA missions.  And that basically says are you in compliance of the regulations and standards?  Are you going to reenter?  Have you met all the requirements so that you can launch, and you think you can do post-mission disposal?  So we do that all the time, even including private industries.

NICK WALKER:  What about spacecraft itself?  Are the satellites, the rockets, whatever is shot up there in space, are they constructed differently now to try to avoid space debris and being damaged?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Yeah, we have a whole group here called the Hypervelocity Impact Technology Group.  And their full research goal is to figure out what type of shielding you need to protect from space debris.  And of course as the space industry grows, there’s different technologies.  There are different materials that are used.  And so we’re constantly having to update our assessments and our models to address that.

NICK WALKER:  Has it been successful thus far?  Or are you still finding little holes in the system where, oops, we didn’t really protect against that?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  I think so far we’ve been pretty successful with our shielding designs.  And we continue to do laboratory tests to improve that, based on the new materials that are available today;  simple laboratory tests; and recreate reentry scenarios to see where things might burn up or when things don’t burn up, and what is the potential debris casualty area that would be associated with something reentering that’s really big.

Career Advice

BILL YATES:  Heather, I want to shift for a second, ask you a little bit of a personal career-type question because your career trajectory, excuse the pun, has been phenomenal.  I mean, you grew up in Houston.  You went to a space camp.  You got an internship.  Now you have a Ph.D., and you’re in charge of – have so many responsibilities with this amazing program.  Speak to those who are early in their career and share some advice that you may have from your perspective, what’s worked well for you.  Maybe what are some things that you would have done differently?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Right.  Don’t be afraid to ask.  So that was one of the key things I learned is sometimes it’s very easy to be the lone female physicist in a group and be scared to ask questions.  But don’t be afraid.  Step up.  Ask.  You might sound stupid, but you never learn unless you ask.  People are like, what if they say no?  Then you learned something.  They said no.  But how are you ever going to grow in your career if  you don’t ask?

So I think the big thing for me was not being afraid to go to this very scary physics professor and be like, I want to work at NASA, and being afraid he was going to laugh at me.  And he said, “Oh, well, I might have a fellowship you’d be interested in.”  And, you know, since then he’s just kind of helped open doors.

The other thing I would tell people is it’s very helpful to have a mentor.  And mentors change throughout your career.  From a child, you might have your parents; to a student where you have a professor; to be even a manager where you have upper managers or other people that help guide you so you don’t make some of the mistakes that they learned.  Learn from others.  Learn from your own mistakes.  And don’t be afraid to step up and be that mentor for the younger generation.

Measuring Success

NICK WALKER:  That’s great stuff.  How do you measure success in a program like this, in a never-ending quest?  What does success look like?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  I think each individual measures their success differently.  So I hate to speak for what is the success of the Orbital Debris Program Office.  And for them, maybe it’s filling in the gap where we don’t have a lot of measurement data, say 700 to 1,000 kilometers we have a data gap where some of our in situ measurements – that’s measurements that are taken of space – or our ground-based measurements, say the telescopes and the radars we use, we don’t have the information.  So if we fill that gap, does that mean we now have success because we have filled a data gap that will help us improve our models?  That’s one way to measure success.

I mean, for me, success is nobody is ever hurt; I don’t lose an employee; and we’ve met our financial and our technical deliverables.  If I can do that, I feel like I can walk away and be like, I did something good this year.

NICK WALKER:  So where does the program go from here?  Obviously, there’s a lot left to do.  Where do we head now?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Oh, as I mentioned, the key is really filling in the data gaps.  We can’t provide empirical-based models with the latest information if we don’t continuously take measurements.  We have to continue to take measurements, and we have to do it better, we have to do it faster, we have to turn it over and get those into our models so we can constantly update our environmental models so that space users can use these models to assess whether or not they’re going to be safe in space.

Learn More

NICK WALKER:  Well, Heather, we’ve only scratched the surface, obviously, with this subject.  But how could people learn more about what you do; more about space debris?  Where can people go to educate themselves?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  It’s really simple.  If you google “orbital debris,” one of the top links that pop up is the Orbital Debris Program Office, and we’re part of the ARES division.  I highly recommend people go there and read about it.  We also publish something called the Orbital Debris Quarterly News.  And if you google that, that will pop up.  We just delivered that recently.  So I would recommend doing that.

And of course you can always contact me.  I’m on the ARES link as a person.  I’m happy to talk to people, certainly if they’re students or young managers that want to know, what did I do?  What could they do?  Maybe even a visit to NASA JSC.  I’d love to give people a tour about what we do.  Unfortunately, none of our telescopes and radars are here, but we do have a really cool lab and some lunar rocks next door.

NICK WALKER:  So we can come see you.

HEATHER COWARDIN:  Yeah, absolutely.  I’d love to have you all here.

NICK WALKER:  All right.  All right.  Well, we have something for you.  Before we go, this is the official Manage This coffee mug.  And we’re going to send this to you.  We’ll send it to you in Houston, rather than Ascension Island; okay?

HEATHER COWARDIN:  That’s great.

NICK WALKER:  Well, thanks so much, Heather.  This has been a fascinating conversation.  We appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.

HEATHER COWARDIN:  No, of course, I looked forward to it.  This was a fun and exciting discussion.

The Bill and Nick Wrap Up

NICK WALKER:  You know, this is a problem that we’re going to be facing, I think, more and more of, Bill.  And Heather mentioned that one of the goals was to try to get the space junk out of the “space highway” – I’m doing air quotes here – “space highway,” just to get it out of the way.  And it’s my understanding you’ve already done a little research on people who are doing just that.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.  I took Heather’s advice ahead of time.  I was just curious because this is a real problem, this space junk; and this just smells like opportunity to me for companies.  And sure enough, there are some creative solutions that are out on the Internet, you know, where companies are looking at this space junk problem and trying to figure out how to be the great space dump truck in the sky, I guess, you know.  You see it backing up in space – beep, beep – looking for that debris to put in and get out of the highway.

NICK WALKER:  So there are people actually already doing this, or at least making plans to.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah.  I was reading about a company in Germany that specializes – get this – in space junk removal.  Right?  Who even knew that was a thing?  And so they’ve got all these, I mean, this is sci-fi type stuff.  This is crazy.  It’s fun to read about.  They’re talking about ways to harpoon the space junk, ways to create a laser or use the sun’s energy to burn up the space junk.


BILL YATES:  Or to somehow have a robotic arm that takes the space junk and basically throws it into – moves it so that it is pulled in by gravity’s pull, and then it does burn up, you know, reenters the Earth’s atmosphere.  So, yeah, there are a lot of solutions:  netting, harpooning, just super cool stuff.

NICK WALKER:  And this is not science fiction.  I mean, this has really been developed.

BILL YATES:  It feels like it; but it’s real, yeah, exactly.

NICK WALKER:  Maybe “Gravity 2.”  We’ve got another sequel here on our hands.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, yeah, Sandra’s going to be running this big old space junk truck and backing up and loading it up with stuff.

NICK WALKER:  All right, Hollywood.  We gave you the idea.  Run with it.

BILL YATES:  There you go.

NICK WALKER:  Just a reminder for our listeners about the double benefit we provide here on Manage This.  We’re talking about the free PDUs, Professional Development Units, that you get just for listening to this podcast.  You can go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.

That’s it for us here on Manage This.  We hope you’ll tune back in on February 19th for our next podcast.  In the meantime, we’d love to have you visit us at Velociteach.com/managethis to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us.  And you can always tweet us at @manage_this if you have any questions about our podcasts or about project management certifications.

Well, that’s all for this episode.  Thanks for joining us.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.

2 responses to “Episode 75 – The Orbital Space Debris Project”

  1. Luis Leon says:

    Fascinating and very serious subject . Now that everybody is focused on global warming, I think we should also pay attention to other global challenges that need to be taken care of !!

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