Space Program:

Space Debris a Potential Threat to Space Station and Shuttle

IMTEC-90-18: Published: Apr 6, 1990. Publicly Released: Apr 23, 1990.

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Samuel W. Bowlin
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) response to the space debris issue, focusing on: (1) its plans and cost estimates for protecting the planned space station from debris; (2) NASA and Department of Defense (DOD) debris tracking capabilities; and (3) the effect of orbital debris on space shuttle operations.

GAO found that: (1) NASA had not revised documents used to guide contractors in designing the station to accommodate the effects of space debris; (2) NASA made progress in revising its 1984 debris model, which could increase costs; (3) NASA planned to assess debris hazards; (4) NASA considered a combination of shuttle protective techniques but, without updated and complete information, could not conclude which techniques were the most protective; (5) NASA planned to finalize the space station's design requirements in 1992; (6) NASA relied on DOD radar and optical sensors to track space objects, but only about 3.5 percent of the tracked objects were smaller than 10 centimeters, and NASA planned to use a separate facility to track objects measuring between 1 and 10 centimeters; (7) although there was no severe damage, various shuttles had shown evidence of being hit by debris; (8) NASA made provisions in its shuttle flight rules to require collision avoidance maneuvers, but ordered no such maneuvers during the first five missions under the new rules; and (9) potential shuttle risks were expected to increase because of longer shuttle missions and increased debris.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A NASA Debris Committee and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology consultant agreed on an environment model. The model is being used as a basis for space station risk/hazard/cost analysis. Risk/hazard assessments are completed, and relate to the overall NASA independent assessment of risks planned for completion in 1993.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, NASA, should initiate and complete the needed risk, hazard, and cost analyses associated with a valid space debris estimate in time for their results to be incorporated into the final design requirements for the space station scheduled for 1992.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A risk and hazard assessment for the shuttle, factoring in the debris environment, was completed in August 1990.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, NASA, should perform a risk and hazards assessment for the shuttle that factors in the anticipated increases in the debris environment and longer duration missions.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration


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