COLORADO SPRINGS — NASA announced a new approach to dealing with an increasingly crowded and dangerous environment in Earth orbit with a space sustainability strategy that puts an initial emphasis on analyzing the problem rather than technologies to solve it.

NASA released April 9 the first volume of an integrated Space Sustainability Strategy that sets six goals for NASA, working with the rest of the space community, to better understand the growing risks from debris in Earth orbit and ways to mitigate those risks.

The strategy, NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in a speech at the 39th Space Symposium, is intended to tackle the complexity of the topic. “I’ve been very uncertain about what steps are actually going to have the biggest impact,” she said, arguing that past analyses have been too simplistic. “We’re at a place where common sense and intuition isn’t going to cut it anymore.”

That’s why, she said, the first goal of the new strategy is to better understand the complexity of the issue. “We need to converge on a widely accepted framework for assessing space sustainability,” she said. “By collaborating with domestic and international stakeholders, we aim to establish a shared framework and a shared perspective.” 

“The framework is a fundamental thing to see success with the strategy,” Charity Weeden, associate administrator for NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy, said at a briefing after the speech. It will incorporate economic and technological aspects of sustainability.

“It’s going to look complicated because it’s a complicated problem,” she added.

That framework will, Melroy argued in her speech, allow NASA and others to better understand the effects of “turning multiple knobs at once” to determine what uncertainties are the most critical. The second goal of the strategy is to identify the most critical uncertain factors that affect space safety.

“We want to seek breakthrough improvements to sense and predict the space environment, explore new operational approaches and identify cost-effective methods to limit debris creation,” she said, as well as managing risks from existing debris.

Only then, she said, would NASA be ready to invest in technologies for space sustainability. “That’s the part everybody jumps to first. We think it comes third.”

Melroy said NASA will then develop a technology portfolio to address the issues from the framework and tackle the critical uncertainties. Those technologies will include orbital debris management, enhanced space situational awareness, traffic coordination and environmental understanding.

As part of the goal, NASA will develop transition plans to transfer those technologies to other users. “We’re aiming to benefit the whole space community, not just NASA,” she said.

Two other goals address policy and coordination. NASA is working to update its internal policies for debris mitigation and support for active debris removal. The latter, Melroy said, put constraints on the level of NASA support for active debris removal technologies that the agency now wants to loosen. “We’re going to need to open up the boundaries a little bit,” she said at the briefing.

The policy also directs NASA to coordinate with other agencies within the federal government as well as with commercial and international users of space. One example is ongoing work with the Office of Space Commerce on its Traffic Coordination System for Space, or TraCSS, civil space traffic coordination system.

“We are proud to partner with the Office of Space Commerce,” Melroy said at the briefing, citing cooperation on the research and development aspects of TraCSS. “What I would hope is that if we come out with this strategy, it would feed their technology investments as well.”

The sixth and final goal is for NASA’s internal organization on the issue. The agency plans to hire a director of space sustainability in the coming months to lead implementation of the strategy.

Melroy said at the briefing that it was premature to discuss funding for the strategy, particularly investments in technologies, with the agency focusing in the near term on framework goal. “Let’s figure out what we’re doing first and what impact it will have,” she said.

She added that with internal NASA planning already underway for its fiscal year 2026 budget proposal, to be released early next year, funding for space sustainability technology development projects that emerge from the strategy may have to wait until the fiscal year 2027 proposal.

Melroy emphasized in her presentation that NASA’s work in space sustainability will be focused on science and technology, with no interest in taking on any kind of regulatory or operational role.

“There are people who would like to see us be the space Coast Guard,” she said. “As a science and technology organization, we should be developing those capabilities and then transitioning them to users.”

Yet, while she emphasized NASA is taking a deliberate approach, Melroy underlined the urgency of the problem. In her speech, she discussed the close approach between NASA’s TIMED spacecraft and a defunct Russian satellite, Cosmos 2221, Feb. 28. Neither satellite could maneuver to avoid a collision, and Melroy said later analysis showed the two spacecraft passed less than 10 meters from each other, narrowly avoiding a catastrophic collision.

“It was very shocking personally and for all of us at NASA,” she said. “The TIMED spacecraft really scared us all.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...