space debris

Tackling Space Debris: Insights from Dr. Heather Cowardin on the “Manage This” Podcast

Home The Savvy PM Blog Tackling Space Debris: Insights from Dr. Heather Cowardin on the “Manage This” Podcast
space debris
Space junk orbiting around earth – Conceptual of pollution around our planet (Texture map for 3d furnished by NASA –

In one of the most out-of-this-world episodes of the “Manage This” podcast, Velociteach presented a fascinating discussion with Dr. Heather Cowardin. Dr. Cowardin is a project manager at NASA who shared insights about the critical issue of orbital space debris. This conversation will be of special interest for project managers and corporate training organizers. There are valuable lessons about complex project management in extreme environments.

Rising Concerns of Orbital Space Debris

To provide context for the conversation, Dr. Cowardin defined orbital space debris. It is any man-made object in space that no longer serves a useful purpose. One of the most common types of orbital space debris is a satellite that has reached the end of its life and is no longer in service. She shared that by 2019 there were already approximately 23,000 objects measuring over 10 centimeters in size. 

These objects pose significant challenges for space navigation and safety. This debris includes spent upper stages, mission-related debris, carriers for multiple payloads, and more. Even something as small as paint flakes can be very damaging.

Impact of Policies and Standards on Space Debris Mitigation

The podcast highlights the importance of international standards and policies in mitigating the growth of space debris. Dr. Cowardin explained NASA’s efforts through the U.S. Government Orbital Debris Mitigation Standards Practices. Their focus is on controlling debris, minimizing accidental explosions, and ensuring safe flight operations.

The Role of International Collaboration

Addressing space debris is a global challenge that requires international cooperation. Dr. Cowardin notes the involvement of 13 countries in the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee, emphasizing the need for a unified approach to effectively manage the debris.

Quote to Reflect On

Dr. Cowardin’s unexpected career path:

“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.”

A Deeper Dive into Space Debris Management

Dr. Cowardin served as director of the NASA JSC Optical Measurement Center, and is now the Hypervelocity Impact and Orbital Debris Branch Chief at NASA. She has also led the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office R&D task group. In the podcast, she provides an in-depth look at NASA’s Optical Measurement Program and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. 

The discussion also includes lighter moments. For example, Dr. Cowardin compares the reality of space debris to the Hollywood version in the movie Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It should not come as a surprise to learn that the movies don’t always match reality!

Managing Projects in Remote Locations

Dr. Cowardin talked about her role as a project manager on Ascension Island and the challenges of working in such a remote location. The small island is one of the most remote inhabited places on the planet, located in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is more than 1,000 miles from both South America and Africa, as isolated as it’s possible to be. 

From 2012 to 2016, she led the effort to establish the John Africano NASA-AFRL OD Observatory, which tracks space debris. She offers valuable advice on managing communication between scientific and non-scientific stakeholders and navigating cultural differences during international collaborations.

Looking to the Future

The podcast concludes with insights into mitigation strategies for the orbital debris problem and the regulation of future satellite populations. Dr. Cowardin also shares astute advice for younger project managers starting their career paths.

Tune in to this episode of “Manage This” to gain a comprehensive understanding of managing complex projects like space debris mitigation. Along the way, discover how Velociteach’s training solutions can enhance your professional development!