Space Program

Space Debris a Potential Threat to Space Station and Shuttle Gao ID: IMTEC-90-18 April 6, 1990

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.


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