5th Ilan Ramon Annual International Space Conference

By General Kevin P. Chilton | Herzliya, Israel | Jan. 27, 2010

General Chilton: [Hebrew]. [Applause].

Thank you ladies and gentlemen, and my apologies to my abuse of your beautiful language and to your ears. And my apologies to the interpreter, I'm sure she's busy scratching her head. [Laughter].

It is such a great pleasure for me to be here, and I'm grateful for the Fisher Brothers [inaudible] strategic studies, to invite me to be a part of this event, celebrating the life and the vision of Ilan Ramon, a hero not only to Israel, but to all space-faring nations and certainly to all men and women who have left the planet earth as astronauts. General Imon, I must thank you also for your patience. For you see, I have been invited to this conference for three years in a row and each year I have had the greatest intent and desire to attend but in previous years I was forced to cancel at the last minute.

You know when you become a four-star general, you think finally, at last, I'm in charge of my schedule. [Laughter]. Not so. In fact, it made me start to think if there was anyone in the United States of America who did not have a boss. I thought long and hard about this and decided there was only one person -- it is Mrs. Barack Obama. [Laughter].

Conferences like this one provide really all of us a tremendous opportunity to share information; build relationships -- and perhaps that is the most important; facilitate the exchange of ideas; and enhance international dialogue on critical issues that are facing our military. As the Commander of United States Strategic Command, I've had the opportunity to oversee a command that has global responsibility. Unlike other unified commands in our military, for example U.S. European Command, who focus primarily on a particular geographic region of the world, in the United States Strategic Command, we are assigned missions that are not constrained by lines on a map or by national boundaries or even by oceans and continents. We are ordered to provide strategic deterrence for America; we are ordered to provide military space operations for America; and we are ordered to provide military cyberspace operations for America. These are our three principle areas of focus, or as we call them, our three main lines of operations. Because we're not only tasked to plan for crisis situations in these three areas, but we also conduct daily operations in each of these three areas that require our utmost and focused attention.

Keeping with our global charter, we are also asked to support other cross-regional mission areas such as missile defense; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; information operations; and the challenge of combating weapons of mass destruction. Today I am both pleased and relieved to only have to speak to you about one of these mission areas, and as you might have guessed, it is my favorite -- space.

While space is undoubtedly a tremendous national asset for the United States it is equally so for the world. Space capabilities benefit every nation. I'm always amazed when I reflect upon the fact that the capabilities that we enjoy today did not exist when I was a young boy growing up in California. Space has become an integral part of our daily lives, so much so that it's difficult to imagine life without them.

We see the benefits of space all around us. Global communications enabling international commerce and telecommunications move at the speed of light connecting people in ways never thought possible all around the world. Positioned navigation and timing systems such as GPS guide travelers in the air and on the ground and indeed in space. GPS enables global banking, local ATMs, precision manufacturing, precision farming, precise military operations, and recreational times, not to mention for me personally, it has saved me more than once from having to stop and do something that the American male never wants to do while driving -- ask directions. [Laughter].

It would be hard for me, or I would argue for any of us, to envision also not having the benefits of satellite imagery. Can you imagine waking up in the morning and turning on the news and not seeing a satellite image that tells you what the weather will be today and perhaps tomorrow? Even on the other side of the world.

Simultaneously, space industries have become an important economic engine providing thousands of jobs and [fielding] development of new products and services all around the world. Meanwhile our scientists -- like the two wonderful scientists we had today on stage today -- continue to unlock the mysteries of the universe as unmanned probes and telescopes venture into space to look not only up at this wonderful universe, but back down on this planet that we call home. And today astronauts work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in orbit around the earth on the International Space Station.

Yet all the benefits of our activities in space today are under constant threat from a growing enemy, and I'm not just talking about the budget pressures that we all are challenged within our countries as we try to increase our participation in space.

If I could, I'd like to tell you just a brief story from my last flight in space aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. It was about the third or fourth day in the flight and I drifted down from the flight deck to the mid deck which is just below the cockpit to conduct some business. On the side hatch, mounted on the mid-deck, is a porthole about this big around. The porthole we keep covered up all the time when we're on orbit because the glass in that porthole has no filters on it. So there are no ultraviolet filters to shade the sun and protect your skin as we have on all the other windows. So a perfect glass for observation of the earth, but we've covered it.

I was working near the porthole and I thought I'd take a peek through this glass window just to see if it was that much better, that much more clear. I peeled the cover back. I was amazed to find in this small porthole, in the top right hand section, about three centimeters in diameter a crater that had been created in the outer glass pane. Now this got my attention. Fortunately I knew there were three panes of glass and only the outer pane had been cracked. But what was it that had caused this crack? All my crew mates came down and each took turns looking at it. It looked as if someone had shot a small pellet gun at a window on your house and left that spalding mark in the window. What could it have been?

Well when we landed from the flight of course the engineers and scientists were quite interested in this. They replaced the outer pane and sent the glass to be examined by an electron microscope. And their conclusion was that this crack in the outer window had been caused by a small fleck of paint. Now how can something so light and insignificant crack the glass on the outer pane of the space shuttle window? Moving at such tremendous velocity, even this small fleck of paint has tremendous power.

And so this is the challenge I want to talk to you a little bit about today. If we can bring the chart up that we brought I'd like to describe a little bit this challenge that we have that faces us in operating in space called orbital debris.

Now the chart has the dates along the bottom beginning back pre-1957, before there was no orbital debris in space caused by man. And at the left side is the number of objects that we count and catalog today in orbit. There are some interesting things I'll bring your attention to on this chart.

First, rocket bodies on the bottom; mission related debris; and spacecraft are all, as you would expect, growing but not particularly in a steep slope over the years. What does seem to have the biggest impact on operations up there and on debris is the next line. This line is what we've titled fragmentation debris. So a piece of paint. Mind you, that piece of paint is not on this chart because cannot detect it from the ground. But other debris that is caused by satellites breaking up, from boosters breaking up, or collisions. The top line is just a sum of all the other lines.

And you can see, although these lines are quite linear, and indeed looking at this time period in here it flattened out for a while, the amount of debris, there are some significant events along the way that have caused this top line in going from a linear position to sort of exponential here in the end.

In 1988 we see a [Sput] satellite broke apart on orbit and caused an increase in debris. And then a Pegasus booster from the United States exploded, an upper stage exploded on that causing a bump in the debris. But most dramatically you can see the impacts of the Chinese anti-satellite test that occurred in this time period; followed by the collision between a U.S. Iridium satellite and a Russian Cosmos satellite.

Now these lines here, as I said, are kind of flat. You see a slight growth here in the satellite line probably because we're starting to launch more than one satellite per rocket booster as we get more advanced. Two or three satellites at a time, so the number of satellites grows on orbit as we grow out. But what we're most concerned about is this trend out here at the end. Maybe it will flatten out. The worst case scenario is if we were to have a cascade of collisions as a result of these breakups. A chain reaction, if you will, amongst other satellites on orbit that would create thousands upon thousands of more pieces of debris. There are estimations that these numbers could grow up over 50,000 in total numbers in the not-too-distant future. And that could be a problem for any of us who would want to operate in a low earth environment, a low earth orbital environment.

Every time there's a spike, there's a potential that the top line will start taking off exponentially as debris can create more debris and more collisions.

This chart only represents those things that we have catalogued that are approximately larger than my fist. And so there are many many more smaller objects that are equally important that we do not see.

The simple fact is that our space-dependent commerce and communications, indeed our human space flight programs are at risk every time we send a satellite into orbit. Clearly we must continue to have access to space, but the growing problem of space debris, if left unchecked, could eventually make this essential domain uninhabitable by man or machine.

So what can be done to mitigate this threat? This threat to our continued free access to the space environment? I'd like to offer and propose to you three different parallel methods for your consideration.

One, we should encourage, in fact we should demand, responsible space operations of all space-faring nations.

Secondly, we should act to improve space surveillance capabilities.

And three, increase data sharing between space-faring nations.

Now responsible space operations means that all space-faring nations need to take the necessary steps to minimize debris caused by routine launch and satellite operations. Rocket body upper stages that necessarily must achieve orbital velocity need to be designed to shed the minimal amount of debris possible while placing their payloads into transfer orbits.

Additionally, they should have engineered into their fuel tanks relief valves designed to relieve the pressure inside from excess fuel that's left over so that they don't build up pressure and lead to an eventual explosion, which has happened in the past to create debris.

Furthermore, prudent satellite and mission designs should allow for the disposal of satellites at the end of their mission so that they can free up room for other satellites and again, minimize the likelihood of future collisions that could create more debris.

In parallel with these efforts, at the same time we need to improve our space surveillance capabilities. Collision avoidance maneuvers are possible if we know precisely the location not only of debris but of the satellites on orbit that can maneuver. One of the big challenges is keeping track of the debris and satellites precisely enough to calculate accurate and timely collision avoidance maneuvers. Tracking these objects in orbit requires frequent observation with radars and optical telescopes.

And no one nation really has the resources, and perhaps more importantly the geography, to do this adequately today. The U.S. has quite an extensive array of sensors, radars and telescopes to surveil the heavens, but even that is not enough. In spite of the investments that we're making in space-based satellites that would improve our sensing of the geostationary belt and the enhancements to our radar fences that will come in the near future that will improve our situational understanding of low earth orbit.

And this brings me to my third consideration -- information sharing. We have the opportunity to share data from various radars and telescopes to make the tracking and collision avoidance problem one that is manageable. We can make it simpler because we can make it technically simpler with more observations. The more often you observe the satellite, the more often you observe the debris, the more precisely you know its location, the more precisely you can predict a potential collision, the more precisely you can calculate and maneuver to avoid the predicted collision. But sometimes that's not the most difficult thing to do. Information sharing requires agreements between countries, it requires meeting middle ground on common lexicon, on common types of data formats and units, et cetera. We can't be reporting in feet in one case and meters in another. We need to find some common ground to share this information.

So what is United States Strategic Command doing to address this problem of space debris and space situational awareness? In December United States Strategic Command assumed responsibility for the Commercial and Foreign Entities Program, a so-called experimental or pilot program that looked at opportunities to share information with other countries and commercial entities. Today my Joint Component Commander for Space at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, is tasked with the day-to-day operational command and control of our geographically disbursed space surveillance radars and telescopes. And I've also tasked him with not only building and maintaining this catalog of debris, but also conducting collision avoidance calculations to be in a better position to share this so we can avoid collisions in the future.

We have taken responsibility for this program now in U.S. Strategic Command, and we have renamed it Space Situational Awareness Sharing, to emphasize our desire and attempt to share information with the international community and commercial partners interested in space flight safety. We provide transparency into our satellite database and make orbital and positional satellite information available today on the web site, www.spacetrack.org. We maintain this database to make collision avoidance calculations and ultimately if required, to notify the right people or organization of potential collisions.

This sharing program consists of two services. First, the basic service is just the population of the web site which is available to anyone who would like to log onto it to gather data.

The second service is a little more advanced and one that envisions direct cooperation and partnership with the satellite owners and operators and international entities needing a negotiated agreement. Per United States law, my command on behalf of the government, must enter into written agreements with our perspective international partners before these types of services can be granted. But they include such things that make sense -- calculations before launch of a satellite to predict safe orbit and safe orbital insertion, for example.

So these two programs, these two parts of the Space Situational Awareness Sharing Program, although it is early right now in its birth, it is maturing and evolving. It's one that I feel will have a significant and positive impact on space situational awareness and help us reduce the threat of space debris.

Yet in order for this program to be truly successful we need help in three areas. Sensors, participation, and this is where the students come in in the room, innovation. We need to increase the number and the capabilities of the sensors that contribute to our situational awareness to give us better fidelity of the debris in the domain. Moreover, space-faring nations need to develop these common protocols I mentioned earlier, and languages, so that we can share via networks the sensor information and pass it more efficiently and effectively.

We need participation in space situational awareness services -- partners who will work with us to expand our capabilities and services. And we need partners who are committed, as we are, to addressing this critical threat to every nation's ability to explore and operate from the space domain.

And finally, we need innovation. Rona and Ilan's vision from this conference, Rona's vision to carry Ilan's vision forward, was to stimulate the youth of Israel, to excite educational opportunities, to promote science and mathematics so you can solve great problems for your country in the future. Here is one for you to tackle.

We need processes and technologies not only to minimize space debris, but we need technologies to help us avoid collisions, and here is the really hard one. We need to find opportunities or technologies that would allow us to help eliminate space debris. Now this is a very difficult problem.

Today the way we eliminate space debris is we wait for it to come down, and sometimes it can take a very long time for this debris to reenter the atmosphere.

I'm confident that together we can invent new technologies and techniques to not only mitigate debris in the future, but perhaps even remove debris currently threatening every satellite in orbit and every man and woman working in space.

So, these are the challenges that lay in front of us, but they're also the opportunities for young minds to go out and solve these challenges for us in the future. And that is the exciting part of the space business. It is never completely solved. There is always another hill to climb.

And now in closing, if you will permit me, I would like to add a small personal reflection. I'll again go back to my third and final flight on Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1996.

I was sitting in the cockpit of Atlantis in the commander's seat, snuggled in my pressure suit, tightly strapped in while we waited for several hours before launch. I squeezed in a little nap because I was so relaxed and comfortable. Because you don't want to move around too much since you get very hot in the suit. Then I woke as we got later in the count, got into the checklists, prepared things with my crew, reviewed all the instruments prior to flight. I will tell you, and I think every astronaut would tell you, there's no place on the planet I would rather have been that day than in the cockpit of Atlantis. I had no worries. I had complete faith in my crew and the ground crew supporting us.

It wasn't until after the flight that I reflected on another perspective of that morning. A friend of mine was escorting my family to the launch. And they were standing on top of the launch control center about three miles away from the Space Shuttle Atlantis. And so here is the picture that he described.

My wife Kathy, with a six year old daughter in one hand, a four year old daughter in the other hand, my friend holding our two year old daughter, and Kathy is eight months pregnant with our fourth daughter. Now I ask you, who is the hero that day?

I know I could not have stood on that roof and watched her fly. I had the easy job that day. Astronauts are often referred to as heroes. There are other heroes as well.

And so it was on a bright February morning in 2003 that I had the privilege of sitting about 20 meters away from another group of heroes at the landing strip at the Kennedy Space Center, the family members of the STS-107 crew of Columbia. It was they who bore the greatest burden that day, a burden only slightly eased by time. Rona and the family members of Rick, Willy, Dave, Casey, Mike and Laurel. They remain heroes today. We don't forget them. They are heroes that we live with and they walk among us today. And they, along with heroes like [Ilan] continue to inspire each and every one of us. They certainly inspire me.



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