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satellite explosion illustration
Despite concerns about the growing amount of orbital debris from accidental and deliberate satellite breakups, the US has done little so far to implement policies regarding active debris removal. (credit: ESA)

US space policy, organizational incentives, and orbital debris removal

<< page 1: implementation of the space debris measures and the 2010 National Space Policy

The economics of space debris, revisited

Economics can be very useful in explaining behavior, and space debris is no different. In 2012, I published an article on the economic aspects of space sustainability and space debris, which was revised and updated for publication as a book chapter in 2016. Here I will briefly summarize the main points from those earlier articles that are relevant to this article, and then discuss the implications.

However, the traditional microeconomic approach to solving pollution problems presents challenges in the space debris context.

The traditional economic language of space debris treats it as an environmental pollutant. Outer space is often referred to as being a “global commons” and space debris is a producer-to-producer negative externality resulting from the use of space. The growing amount of space debris increases the risks to spacecraft, which raises the private costs of operating in space. The rising costs may also make it financially unviable to perform certain types of space missions in the future, leading to a loss of social benefits in the future. This view of outer space has led the historical economic policy discussions on space debris to focus on using environmental economics to price and regulate it as a pollutant to achieve the target amount released.

However, the traditional microeconomic approach to solving pollution problems presents challenges in the space debris context. The first challenge is a structural one. While the use of outer space as a whole is a global commons, the access and use of specific regions of Earth orbit such as LEO and GEO are better characterized as common-pool resources (CPRs). CPRs are defined in economics as a natural or human-made resource system whose size or characteristics makes it costly, but not impossible, to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use. Thus, LEO and GEO are CPRs within the larger global commons of outer space, in the same way that fisheries and undersea oil fields are CPRs within the global commons of the oceans. This is important because each CPR has a different set of users, challenges, and a governance model that will be best suited to that particular CPR, as opposed to a blanket solution for the entire commons.

The second major challenge is that there are very few private sector entities currently making money in LEO. Nearly all the commercial revenues in space are derived from direct broadcasting revenues in GEO, where the space debris problem is much less of a challenge. There are few profits being made in LEO, particularly in the region from 700 to 900 kilometers in altitude where the space debris threat is the most acute. The vast majority of space activity in LEO is partly or wholly funded by governments, and is in the form of social benefits such as national security, science, climate and weather monitoring, management of natural resources, disaster response, and space exploration. As the public sector is traditionally much less responsive to prices and markets than the private sector, LEO is thus a poor candidate for microeconomic policy mechanisms aimed at using economic incentives to change behavior on the generation of space debris.

The situation is somewhat changing with the re-emergence of the concept of using large constellations in LEO for providing telecommunications services on Earth. This was an idea originally conceived in the mid- to late-1990s, but hamstrung by the 2000 dot-com crash and oversupply of terrestrial fiber networks. Now, however, the concept is back, with multiple companies planning constellations of several hundred to a few thousand satellites to offer broadband Internet to the world. Some of these companies are in early talks with potential ADR providers about removing their own satellites that failed in operational orbits before performing post-mission disposal. This may provide some funding to help create ADR capabilities, but it will not solve the problem of removing existing space debris, particularly in the altitude range of 700 to 900 kilometers, below where the large constellations plan to operate.

The implications of this for ADR are that there are currently few, if any, economic incentives for the private sector to develop ADR capabilities on its own absent involvement by the government. The existing profits being made in GEO are not going to be significantly impacted one way or another by an improvement in the space debris environment in LEO. Those few companies that are currently making profits in LEO are not making enough profits to fund ADR themselves. There may be additional incentives in the future from the large LEO communications constellations, but that market is as of yet unproven, and will not by itself address the broader ADR problem.

It is not feasible in the foreseeable future for the private sector to resolve the ADR problem on its own. Government funding, or at least incentive, is likely necessary to develop ADR technologies and capabilities.

The situation is made even more challenging with the existing legal obstacles to ADR. Under the current international legal framework, there is no distinction between a functional satellite and a piece of space debris: all are equally considered to be merely “space objects.” All space objects are under the legal jurisdiction and control of a state, usually one of the launching states that placed them into orbit, and any attempts to remove or interact with a space object requires permission from the state of jurisdiction and control. All the launching states for a space object are also potentially liable for any physical damage that object causes to other space objects in orbit that occurs through their negligence. That includes any damage done by existing space debris, and damage done by ADR activities that happen to go awry. Thus, any commercial ADR activities will require significant interact with, and permission from, states to conduct operations.

As a result of these economic and legal factors, it is not feasible in the foreseeable future for the private sector to resolve the ADR problem on its own. Government funding, or at least incentive, is likely necessary to develop ADR technologies and capabilities. Government permission will be required to interact with and remove any space object, and governments will be legally liable for any damages that occur as a result of ADR activities. Thus, it is important for the US government to align its policies and bureaucratic incentives with ADR for it to become possible. The next section delves more deeply into why this has been challenging for the US government, using concepts from the field of public policy.

Space debris in the context of broader public policy theories

Space policy is a subset of the broader field of public policy, which can be generally defined as “how, why, and to what effect governments pursue a particular course of action or inaction on a topic”. Thus, theoretical models from public policy can provide insights on the mixed progress in implementing the space debris measures in the 2010 National Space Policy. The following section provides a brief overview of major models in public policy on how policy change happens, and what these models imply for achieving progress on the issue of space debris.

Scholars in the field of public policy have defined several underlying concepts that impact how public policy issues are addressed. The first is that policymakers operate under the constraint of “bounded rationality,” which prevents them from considering all problems and all solutions at all times and forces them to choose specific issues to address. Policymakers also tend to pay disproportionate attention to specific policy issues, sometimes addressing an issue more than they rationally should, and sometimes less so, according to their own interests as well as those of donors, constituents, and the public. The public policy system includes power brokers and interest groups, who try to maintain their privileged position in the network and frame issues to their advantage, in large part by acting as information conduits for policy-makers.

Within the field of public policy, there are two major models that are often used to understand how change occurs, or does not occur, on a particular issue. The first model, developed by Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones, is known as punctuated equilibrium, and focuses on conflict between policy monopolies in setting and controlling the agenda on a policy topic. Policy monopolies tend to form between bureaucracies (the executive branch), the legislative branch, and powerful interest groups. A policy monopoly tries to control the agenda for a specific set of issues, and maintain a positive policy image for their approach. However, the resulting status quo, or equilibrium, can be disrupted by outsiders successfully mobilizing a wave of criticism from alternative interest groups, problems, and approaches. If successful, the challengers create a new monopoly, which sets a new equilibrium until the next disruption.

Figure 2. An example of the punctuated equilibrium model and the Iridium-Cosmos satellite collision.

The second major model is the policy streams model developed by John Kingdon. Instead of focusing on agenda setting conflict and mobilization, the policy streams model focuses on the mechanics of the overall decision-making agenda. Public policy decision-making has three components: the “problem stream” of issues that rise to the attention of policymakers; the “policy stream” of the community that creates policy alternatives to solving a problem; and the “politics stream” of the coalition building and bargaining techniques that push an issue onto the national agenda. Under the streams model, policy change happens when all three streams align, and a “policy window” opens. However, misalignment of the streams—such as a policy community failing to define useful solutions while there is political interest in addressing it, or the lack of significant interest in addressing a problem that does have a good solution—will prevent change from occurring.

Figure 3. Illustration of the multiple streams model of public policy.

Both models have applicability to the space debris problem. The evolution of policymaker interest in space debris can be seen as a series of shifts in the underlying interest groups, which have driven periods of change in policy focus. Early on, research in space debris was driven by the need to better understand the space environmental risks involved in human spaceflight. That in turn drove NASA, and in particular the Johnson Space Center, to be the early center of power on space debris, along with its associated Congressional committees. But a major shift occurred after the 2007 Chinese ASAT test and the 2009 Iridium-Cosmos collision, in which the US military took a stronger role in preventing collisions between all satellite operators, and in space debris issues in general. And at the moment, there is the beginning of a potential new disruption being driven by the increasing commercial use of space, which may lead to a new policy monopoly on space debris in the near future focused on ensuring and managing the economic development of space.

One way to measure how important an issue is to the bureaucracy is to look at how much money is spent on specific activities.

At the same time, the policy streams model also appears to have been at play in the historical evolution of US national policy on space debris. The research done by NASA scientists on identifying the problem and possible solutions was not immediately implemented in policy. Rather, it took a series of external events to raise awareness of the issue among policymakers, and the beginning of interagency discussions on revising national space policy, to align the policy streams and create the window for change. The policy streams model also provides insight in understanding the lack of progress on space debris remediation. The failure of the solution stream to produce politically- and economically-acceptable ADR capabilities is likely a major reason why remediation has yet to garner significant support from policymakers. It will likely take the development and demonstration of practical ADR techniques before the policy window on remediation has a chance at opening.

Bounded rationality, agenda setting, punctuated equilibrium, and policy streams are all useful theories in helping to understand why US national policy on space debris has evolved over the decades. But another critical part of the equation is the behavior of the various departments and agencies within the executive branch bureaucracy, as they have the most direct influence on both the creation of US national space policy and its implementation. The final section of this article examines this issue, and steps that can be taken to better align the incentives for those departments and agencies with making progress on addressing space debris.

Creating bureaucratic incentives for space debris remediation

Although the term “bureaucracy” may have a negative connection in the public mind, it is also a tool that can be wielded to positive effect. In his classic work on the subject, Anthony Downs defined a bureaucracy as a “rational, goal-seeking group of individuals motivated by self-interests, which can be created when a government decides there is a need to perform a new function.” James Wilson expanded upon this idea, noting that one of the main tasks of a bureaucracy is to create autonomy by identifying its role and purpose as unique and separate from other bureaucracies, and to obtain the resources to sustain its functions.

One way to measure how important an issue is to the bureaucracy is to look at how much money is spent on specific activities. Doing so indicates that the departments and agencies are unwilling to allocate significant funding to dealing with space debris, compared to their other priorities. Most of the progress on implementing national policy on space debris has been in areas that did not require allocation of significant budgets by NASA or the DOD. NASA continues to fund basic research on the space debris population, but the amount is too small to break out into a separate budget. All told, NASA’s entire annual budget dedicated to space debris probably amounts to several million dollars, a paltry sum out of a total annual budget of more than $19 billion.

While the DOD has recently shifted a significant amount of money to deal with space threats, the vast majority of it appears to be directed at counterspace threats and not dealing with space debris. A US Government Accountability Office report published in October 2015 estimated that the DOD spends approximately $1 billion per year on SSA, but much of the motivation for that spending is the broader SSA mission to collect intelligence on foreign space capabilities and detect threats to US space assets. Even if the entire amount were spent on tracking and mitigating space debris, it would still represent around 1/20th of the estimated $20 billion or more spent on US national security space each year. In reality, the DOD spends far less than that $1 billion directly on managing space debris, and has not invested significantly in developing ADR technologies.

The most likely explanation for why neither NASA nor the DOD are investing in ADR is because it does not clearly fall into either organization’s “job bucket” or “wheelhouse.” This leads to a lack of organizational motivation to take on a mission that might result in cuts to other missions that are deemed higher priorities. Both organizations make heavy use of space, but neither has managing or protecting the space environment as an explicit part of their mission. Thus, neither has a strong incentive to allocate funds for ADR, particularly when both are facing budget crunches to fund the functional areas that are explicitly in their mission statements, even without adding more unfunded projects to the list.

The most likely explanation for why neither NASA nor the DOD are investing in ADR is because it does not clearly fall into either organization’s “job bucket” or “wheelhouse.”

The on-going discussions within the US government on oversight of private sector space activities and STM provide an opening to change bureaucratic incentives on space debris. Part of the interagency and Congressional discussions on STM includes whether or not to give on-orbit authority to a civil federal agency, and whether this authority extends to managing the space environment and space debris as well. Explicitly assigning responsibility for managing the space environment and shepherding the development of ADR capabilities to a federal agency would likely go a long way to changing the bureaucratic incentives and making it happen.

There are two general options for realigning the existing authorities. One option would be to give the authority to an existing agency. Although NASA might seem a suitable candidate due to its long-standing focus on orbital debris research, its lack of regulatory authority creates a challenge for implementing other aspects of STM. Other candidates, such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), do have regulatory authority over some aspects of space activities. However, none have existing scientific or operational expertise with space debris and SSA.

The second option would be to create a new agency that has broad oversight over many different aspects of space activities. Such an agency might be modeled after the US Coast Guard, which has responsibility for safety and efficient use of the environment, a mix of regulatory and law enforcement powers, and domain awareness capabilities. The new agency could absorb some of the expertise, responsibilities, and authorities for oversight of space activities and safety of spaceflight that are currently spread across NOAA, NASA, the FCC, the FAA, and the DOD.

But the concept of a “Coast Guard for space” or “Space Guard” faces significant bureaucratic and institutional challenges to becoming reality. It would require convincing the bureaucracies with existing authorities and budget over space to give up their power to the new entity, which in turn would need to develop its own competency and capabilities. Such a massive bureaucratic change is among the most difficult and challenging public administration tasks, as exemplified by recent attempts within the United States to create the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and United States Cyber Command.

Of these two options, the most talked about solution over the last few years would be to give the on-orbit authority to FAA/AST. On May 9, 2014, the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology convened a hearing to discuss space traffic management (STM), which included a brief discussion of whether the FAA/AST would take on a larger role. Congress also included language in the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 that stipulated a study on alternate frameworks for the management of space traffic and orbital activities, which was completed in November 2016. In April 2016, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) unveiled a proposal for an American Space Renaissance Act, which included language to give FAA/AST authority to regulate private sector activities in space. Expanding the responsibilities of AST to include management of the space environment could provide the necessary bureaucratic incentive to drive investment in ADR technologies, and developing a more holistic strategy to dealing with space debris.

Two key issues with giving expanded on-orbit authority to FAA/AST are their resources and capabilities to do the mission, and whether they should remain within the FAA. AST consists of about 104 full time equivalent employees and an annual budget of about $20 million, compared to 40,000 and $16.4 billion, respectively, for the FAA. This creates challenges for AST to successfully obtain increased budget within the FAA, particularly if it comes at the expense of other budget lines for aviation. Additionally, the FAA has a troubled track record of failing to adequately fund other space initiatives, such as the civil requirements for the Global Positioning System (GPS).

FAA/AST did not start out as part of the FAA. FAA/AST, formerly known as the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST), was established by the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984. OCST was originally an organizational component of the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, but was transferred to the FAA in 1995. As part of the decision-making process for the transfer, the DOT tasked the National Academy of Public Administration to conduct a study of potential alternative organizational options. The NAPA study assessed five options:

  1. Retain in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation
  2. Establish OCST as an independent regulatory agency outside the DOT
  3. Merge OCST into an existing operating administration, such as the FAA or the Research and Special Projects Administration
  4. Transfer OCST to Bureau status in the DOT
  5. Create a new operating administration in DOT for space

AST’s current location within the FAA indicates that option three was the one ultimately chosen. However, given the recent changes in the space domain and the ongoing discussions of space traffic management, it may be worth reconsidering the other options. The NAPA report cites option 2, establish an independent regulatory agency, and option 5, create a new operating administration for space, as likely being too bulky for the relatively small size of the space office. While this likely remains true, option 4, creating a Bureau within the DOT to handle space, might prove to be a useful way of giving AST more authority and control over its own budget, without burdening it with excessive overhead. A recent GAO study asked stakeholders what they felt about moving AST out of the FAA, perhaps as a prelude to revisiting this issue.

Among the changes that should be considered is giving an existing, or new, federal agency explicit authority over on-orbit activities and management of the space environment.

However, the idea of giving expanded authority to FAA/AST has met with significant resistance from Congress. Some members of Congress have openly questioned whether there needs to be any oversight done at all. The more conservative-minded members of Congress who do support an oversight framework prefer the any expanded authorities to go to the Department of Commerce, rather than the Department of Transportation. Both have in their respective mission statements to promote and regulate industry, but there is a belief that Commerce puts promotion before regulation and thus would have less of an impact on industry. This philosophy was one of the factors behind the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2017, passed by the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology in June 2017, which would transfer most of the responsibility for providing oversight of private sector space activities, including implementation of the debris mitigation guidelines, to the Office of Space Commercialization in the Department of Commerce. However, the Senate has not yet introduced its own legislation, nor has the full House moved to take up the bill.


Over the course of the last thirty years, successive US presidential administrations have increased the focus on space debris in national policy decisions. There is a clear movement over time from implementation of national mitigation guidelines to international mitigation guidelines, broader discussion on space sustainability, and improving SSA and collision warning measures. And over the same time, practical steps have been taken towards implementing these policy directives.

However, while national policy has recognized the importance of developing remediation capabilities such as ADR, there has not been significant progress towards implementation. To date, U.S. efforts on space debris remediation have been limited to studies by both NASA and the DOD, and relatively small research and development contracts from NASA. The lack of progress is likely due to organizational and political factors, including the lack of clearly defined responsibilities, budget constraints, and a political predilection for national security. Broader theories of how public policy change occurs, and how bureaucracies function, can provide insights into changes that could result in improved progress on dealing with space debris.

Among the changes that should be considered is giving an existing, or new, federal agency explicit authority over on-orbit activities and management of the space environment. At a minimum, this authority should be focused on clearly permitting and incentivizing the private sector to develop ADR technologies and capabilities, and possibly even providing government funding for research and development if private sector funding does not materialize. This authority should also be linked with providing of SSA or STM data and services, which would be essential for conducting or providing oversight of ADR. Creating a bureaucratic champion in this manner will help better align bureaucratic incentives with the stated policy goals, and help create the change that will improve the space environment for all future users, public and private.