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Committee Leaders Question Biden Administration's Efforts to Address Space Debris Issues

Press Release From: United States Senate
Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2021

U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., ranking member and chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, along with Sens. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., ranking member and chair of the Subcommittee on Space and Science, today sent a letter requesting that Vice President Kamala Harris prioritize space debris issues in her role as chair of the National Space Council. The Senators also sent a letter to Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to inquire about the department's outer space-related efforts following Russia's destructive anti-satellite test two weeks ago.    

"Regrettably, the Russian Federation recently carried out an anti-satellite weapon test that created over 1,500 new pieces of trackable orbital debris and recklessly threatened the safety and sustainability of low-Earth orbit. It also endangered American astronauts aboard the International Space Station and put the thousands of satellites currently in-orbit today at severe risk of becoming victims to the Kessler syndrome," the Senators wrote in the letter to Vice President Harris.

Last December, Wicker wrote an op-ed highlighting the value of the National Space Council and encouraging the Biden administration to maintain it. Shortly thereafter in March, the Biden Administration announced that it would maintain the Space Council. The Council will hold its first meeting this Wednesday, December 1, where it will discuss topics related to international norms of behavior in space. The Senators expect the Council to maintain many of the Trump Administration's space policies, such as the Artemis lunar exploration campaign, space situational awareness and space traffic management efforts, and Space Force.

In the letter to Secretary Raimondo, the Senators expressed concern about the Commerce Department's lack of progress in carrying out space situational awareness and space traffic management efforts supported by Congress. The Senators also inquired about elevating the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) within the department.

Progress by the department in setting up a prototype containing the locations of space objects, known as the open architecture data repository (OADR), has been slow. Much of the roughly $5 million appropriated for the pilot program has gone to contracts to continue studying the problem rather than establishing the capability to monitor space debris and warn operators about collisions. Part of the problem remains the lack of an appointed Director for the OSC and its position as a sub-office of the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which is an office within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The absence of leadership has slowed progress on carrying out national space policy.

"Effective leadership and a functioning OADR that incorporates commercial data and capabilities will contribute to the growth of the space economy and improve space safety. These capabilities will support the nation's ability to manage the emergence of new debris fields, such as the debris field created by the Russian test. Further, these capabilities will help the nation understand and respond to unforeseen disasters in space and play a critical role in protecting U.S. property and personnel," the Senators wrote in the letter to Secretary Raimondo.

The Wicker-Cantwell SPACE Act, included in the U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness Act, recommends that the Secretary elevate OSC within the department as a way to raise its profile and enhance its effectiveness.

Click here for the letter to Vice President Harris.

Click here for the letter to Secretary Raimondo.

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