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Nicholas Johnson, Chief Scientist and Program Manager for NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office, Johnson Space Flight Center

Johnson: Burnt Frost was the operation to try to mitigate the threat posed by a crippled Department of Defense spacecraft that contained hazardous material that was about to reenter the atmosphere, components of which would’ve struck the surface of the Earth. I served as the NASA representative to a large U.S. government interagency group charged with assessing the threat posed by the satellite to people on Earth and means of mitigating that threat. NASA contributed to the effort in a variety of ways. We verified that the spacecraft’s propellant tank, containing a large amount of frozen, hazardous hydrazine, would survive an uncontrolled reentry in the atmosphere, potentially exposing multiple people to injury or death. NASA also played a principal role in quantifying the probability of human casualty. In the event that an order was given by the President to engage the spacecraft prior to reentry, NASA evaluated the risk to the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle, and other NASA assets from the resultant, short-lived orbital debris. I worked on a daily basis with the interagency group, visiting U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, meeting with the President’s Science Advisor, and attending a deputies’ meeting of the National Security Council in the White House. For my efforts, I was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal by the NASA Administrator and the Joint Meritorious Civilian Service Award by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

NTB: Was that the first time we had ever attempted to intercept a piece of space debris with a surface-launched missile?

Johnson: Yes, it actually was the first time we ever intercepted a piece of space debris. Back in 1985, the U.S. conducted its first and only test of an air-launched anti-satellite system against a Department of Defense satellite called Solwind, which was operational at the time; hence, it was not a piece of orbital debris.

NTB: I imagine this was a lot more challenging.

Johnson: It certainly was. Actually, six weeks prior to the engagement, the United States didn’t have the capability to engage the satellite. We had to completely reconfigure the hardware and the software to even make this possible.

NTB: Exactly what was entailed in doing that? How do you respond so quickly to something like that?

Johnson: It was a phenomenal operation. I really can’t give you the details, but you would be impressed by the dedication and the hard work that people from all over the country, from all of the services, and from the civilian community spent in making that possible.

NTB: I’m sure I would because most people think government agencies tend to get bogged down in bureaucracy. It’s actually quite a tribute that you were able to mobilize that quickly and solve the problem successfully.

Johnson: I’ve been working with the government for nearly 40 years and I’ve never seen people just throw the book out the window and get the job done as well as they did this time.

NTB: Finally, how much risk does space debris pose to people here on Earth?

Johnson: It’s really not that much of a risk. On the average, there’s about one cataloged object per day that reenters the Earth’s atmosphere. Most of it burns up in the atmosphere. Those things which may have surviving components typically fall into the water, or in some desolate region like Siberia, or the Canadian tundra, or the Australian Outback. No one has ever been hurt by any reentering debris.

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