Welcome to the crowded and cluttered space skies above Earth…congested, contested, competitive, inspected, and dejected.  

Orbiting riff-raff continues be a daunting problem – with a new study released on August 20 focused on space traffic management, or STM for short.

Space Traffic Management: Assessment of the Feasibility, Expected Effectiveness, and Funding Implications of a Transfer of Space Traffic Management – has been issued by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA).

In-orbit explosions can be related to the mixing of residual fuel that remain in tanks or fuel lines once a rocket stage or satellite is discarded in Earth orbit. The resulting explosion can destroy the object and spread its mass across numerous fragments with a wide spectrum of masses and imparted speeds.
Credit: ESA


Complex issues

“There is general agreement within the space community on actions that can address the complex underlying space traffic management issues facing the world of stakeholders deploying orbital assets. However, there are questions regarding where the responsibility for space traffic management should ultimately reside,” explains NAPA’s Teresa W. Gerton, President and Chief Executive Officer in a foreword to the report.

Chunk of junk zips by the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA

And the winner is…

The NAPA appraisal focused on four agency candidates “best suited” to take on the STM task: (1) the Office of Space Commerce (OSC), a part of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) inside the Department of Commerce (DOC); (2) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), part of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inside the Department of Transportation (DOT); (3) NASA; or (4) the Department of Defense (DoD).

The NAPA report utilized an evaluative criteria with an expert panel determining that the Office of Space Commerce (OSC) — a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) inside the Department of Commerce – is “best suited” to perform STM tasks within the federal government.

Other agencies must continue to work collaboratively now, and in the future, to achieve a safer space domain, the NAPA study explains.

Clutter in the cosmos.
Credit: Used with permission: Melrae Pictures/Space Junk 3D

Actionable safety data

“The report contains a lot of good information about why Space Traffic Management (STM) matters, and why it is important for Congress to designate a Lead Agency for STM,” said George Nield, formerly the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation from 2008-2018.  He is President of Commercial Space Technologies, LLC, which was founded to encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space activities.

“In my opinion, the primary responsibility of the Lead Agency will be to develop a system that can provide timely and actionable safety data to all space operators,” Nield told Inside Outer Space. “The report doesn’t describe in detail how the Department of Commerce (DOC) would accomplish that, so Congress may have some questions for them along those lines.” 

According to the report, Nield flags the fact that “OSC [the Office of Space Commerce] views its STM responsibilities as a data management function, rather than principally as a task of managing space traffic.” The report goes on to say that “OSC must find ways to leverage DoD [Department of Defense] data and capabilities.” 

What’s up in space and what is that spacecraft doing?
Credit: Lockheed Martin

“Having access to DoD data and capabilities will certainly be helpful, but it will be crucial for DOC to collect and incorporate additional observations, and to use them to improve the quality of the products and services it provides,” Nield adds. “After all, it is important to recognize that the current DoD system no longer meets the needs of the user community in terms of completeness of the data, accuracy of the catalog, timeliness of the information, and the excessive number of false alarms.”


Credit: Net value? De-clutter concept.
Credit: ESA

Deploy  fewer satellites

“I believe that space debris is a serious problem. But it is not a disaster, nor will it ever render space unusable or cascade into oblivion. Proving this is straightforward and irrefutable,” suggests Dave Finkleman, a member of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Permanent Committee on Space Debris and other expert communities.

“But a community has grown that relies on debris funding. They continuously cite the Kessler Syndrome [a theoretical, self-sustaining cascading collision of space debris in low Earth orbit]. Deploying fewer satellites is the only assured approach to minimizing debris,” says Finkleman.

Mission impacts and cost

“Space traffic cannot be managed. No regulatory authority can force an operator to move his satellite, even if that operator is within its jurisdiction. Although many maneuvers consume little energy, there will be mission impacts and cost.  Conjunction avoidance is notoriously and perhaps irretrievably imprecise and unreliable. The Air Force wishes not to be blamed for the consequences of the deficiencies,” Finkleman says.

Finkleman’s bottom line: “DoC does not have the skills for traffic management.”

Note: To read the full report — Space Traffic Management: Assessment of the Feasibility, Expected Effectiveness, and Funding Implications of a Transfer of Space Traffic Management — go to:


Also, go to “The Dilemma of Space Debris,” by Dave Finkleman at:


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