Skip to content

The Dream of Yesterday and the Realities of Tomorrow

It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.

Robert Goddard

Many years ago, I believe it was either in mid-2016 or maybe 2017, I was attending a workshop on orbital debris mitigation out in DC. One of the presentations at the workshop was on modeling of the space debris environment and the need for increased post-mission disposal reliability and active debris removal. I had seem similar presentations or papers making the same point for many years by that time. But what stood out to me was the realization that none of the groups modeling space debris at that point had even started considering constellations larger than Iridium’s ~100 satellites. This was after OneWeb, and SpaceX, and several other groups had announced constellations with 650 – 4500+ satellites, and after several of those groups had each raised more than $500M to pursue those efforts.

Fast-forward less than half a decade, and the number of satellites on orbit has tripled, and the mass of human-made objects in LEO has increased by 50%. I’ve lost track of how many satellites are currently authorized for launch, but even if you only counted groups that have a reasonably high probability of making it to market, there’s a very good chance we could pass 10k or even 20k satellites on orbit, and that the amount of mass in LEO could easily double, triple, or quadruple by the end of the decade.

Number of Active Satellites on orbit by year from 1957 – 2021 (Source: Statista)

I realized recently, that a similar phenomenon is happening when it comes to LEO humanspaceflight facilities like the various “Commercial LEO Destinations” proposed or in active development by groups like Axiom, Voyager, Northrup Grumman, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Gravitics, Vast, Orbital Assembly Corp and others. Almost all of the simulations I’ve seen still assume that the only two big objects in LEO are ISS and Tiangong. And I think a lot of those models assume ISS goes away and doesn’t get replaced… nobody is even modeling the likelihood that at least one or two modest versions of those CLD facilities will make it to market. Let alone the more ambitious concepts on the table.

Some of the major commercial LEO facility players (from left: Blue Origin, Northrup Grumman, Voyager, Axiom)

Why does this matter?

Because, like in the original quote, the dreams of yesterday are starting to become the realities of tomorrow, and I really don’t think that our standard of care for sustainable space operations has kept up.

It’s true that not all space ambitions are going to pan out. And even for those that do become the realities of tomorrow, that “tomorrow” can take a lot longer to become a reality than any of us would want while still in the hopes and dreams stage. But I think it’s also relatively safe to say that humanity is likely to increase its ambitions in space over time. And as those ambitions increase, it’s going to become increasingly critical for us as a society to improve our standard of care when it comes to managing the space environment.

The policies, rules, norms, and even ways of looking at the space environment that may have made sense in the late 90s, like the old “25 year rule” are already hopelessly antiquated today. Let alone if we end up in a world where one or more of the major RLV developers of our day gets a capability across the finish line.

I have some thoughts I’d like to share here over the coming months regarding things we can do to “up our game” when it comes to sustainable space operations, in a way that can make a future with thriving human activity in LEO a lot less scary. These ideas range from new ways to look at what should be the gold standard in responsible space operations, to things we need to be doing on the simulation and analysis side, to black swans that we can prepare to mitigate, to policy ideas to make all of this easier. I look forward to sharing more of these ideas, and getting feedback on them in the coming weeks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *