Why do critical space systems decline despite concrete reasons to expand and improve them?

The U.S. Air Force has issued irrevocable direction to permanently disable the only true surveillance capability in the Space Surveillance Network, the Air Force Space Surveillance System, also known informally as the Space Fence. Fewer objects will be perceived, diminishing manpower and analysis need, and saving more money. What we don’t know could hurt us and all spacefaring nations. Is there liability for damage caused by what we could and should have seen?   

The information loss and mission impact have been studied several times with various conclusions. They all agree that there will be serious impact if there is nothing else. At present, there is nothing else, and the closure has encouraged Congress not to support anything else. Almost every senior officer and decision maker in the last two decades has stated that space surveillance capabilities are inadequate for well-defined, essential missions. 

One reason space surveillance loses the budget battle is that this is rocket science. Those who understand are busy using to best advantage what they have to work with. There are so few that they cannot be spared to defend the needs in terms that decision makers, let alone Congress, can understand. It takes years to develop the required expertise, and not everyone has such a technical bent. It is difficult for one to admit one’s limitations: “If I don’t understand it, it is not understandable or worthy.” Capabilities easily understood have an advantage. 

Another reason is those responsible for a mission wish not to admit that they cannot accomplish it. This line of thinking — “If you can’t get this done, I will find someone who can” — was seen in the classic Kirk Douglas film “Paths of Glory,” in which blameless soldiers were executed for not being able to accomplish the impossible mission their superior had committed would be done. The Goldwater-Nichols defense reform legislation of 1986 helped overcome this by separating mission owners (combatant commands) from force providers (the military departments). Double-hatting seniors so that they command both mission and resources defeats the intent.  

Not wanting to accept help from others with relevant capabilities is a third reason. “No one can do it as well as we can” is no longer valid. Others can and have offered to help fill gaps and provide data for managing traffic in space. Of necessity, France and Germany already collaborate. Canada and Australia have provided essential data in the past but not so much of late.  

Working with others could keep us from slipping on the banana peel and make lemonade from someone else’s lemons. The Space Data Center, designed and operated by Analytical Graphics Inc., demonstrates the value of collaboration. Owner/operators provide their own best data on their satellites, leading to rich understanding of where everyone is and how to stay out of the way without dedicated surveillance. It is not the only exquisite, relatively inexpensive and credible source. The French Doppler Orbitography and Radiopositioning Integrated by Satellite (DORIS) system is similar to transponder-based aircraft tracking that is now the core of air traffic control, not radars conducting surveillance. Large and small telescopes have proliferated worldwide. Although telescopes are best for near-geostationary objects, there are also many radar-like devices. Reflection from satellites of well-characterized emissions from radio and high-definition television stations as well as communication satellites works. 

The unfortunate demise of the Space Fence should invigorate exploiting low-cost surveillance opportunities from nonmilitary and overseas sensors. We cannot claim simultaneously that the space situational awareness capability is insufficient and that we can close sensors without impact. Neither should we make invidious comparisons between flying hours and space surveillance. Overcoming the deficiency will cost more than $14 million. Much more.

Dave Finkleman is senior scientist in the Center for Space Standards and Innovation at Analytical Graphics Inc. in Colorado Springs, Colo., and an academician of the International Academy of Astronautics. The views expressed are his own.