Sen. Cantwell Discusses Space Traffic Management During Subcommittee Hearing

July 22, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, Chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, today questioned Dr. Marcus Holzinger, Associate Professor of the Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder regarding the role of universities in researching and developing systems to improve space situational awareness and effectively manage increasing space traffic and orbital debris.

The Senator’s exchange came during a Space and Science Subcommittee hearing chaired by Senator John Hickenlooper. 


Below is a transcript of the exchange.

Cantwell: Thank you, Senator Hickenlooper and thank you and Senator Lummis for holding this important hearing. Thank you to all the witnesses who are here. This is a very important topic for many companies in the Pacific Northwest because we're continuing to focus on space in so many different ways. We like to think that we're the Silicon Valley of space issues. I think I've mentioned even in this committee, I met people who told me they were working on materials for a space hotel. I thought they meant like in your backyard, giving you more space, so your relatives could come and visit -- like an REI solution. They said, “No, up there. I'm working on materials for up there.” Okay. So let's just say that people are planning ahead in the Pacific Northwest. So Dr. Holzinger, when you’ve been having this discussion about traffic and traffic management, and I'm a firm believer in using all the information we can to develop a system for that, because we're going to need to but what can our universities do now? What is the appropriate role for some of these institutions that could help you know, in in in doing this?

Holzinger: thank you, Senator Cantwell, our universities have a couple of critical roles in this activity. Principally, especially the R1 research universities, are activities centered around researching the fundamental basic research and developing technologies that enable SSA, STM and improve those activities. So basic research and applied research to do those things.

Another aspect of our endeavor in this front is to train the workforce. So that means training master's students, PhD students to perform these activities. And anecdotally, I might offer that across the country, approximately 300 PhD students are graduated in aerospace each year, but only a small fraction of those are actually in space. We've already heard from one Senator before that it's difficult to find engineers that are sufficiently trained in this activity. And that's a challenge, you know, of course that we face. That, of course, relates to our previous activity and research. Traditionally, PhD students are funded on research for five, six years. And, you know, continuity of funding for that research is a critical element of that activity.

Cantwell: What would you think that study would look like? Or what would that degree be called?

Holzinger: So that degree, sits pretty squarely in what I would imagine to be aerospace engineering. And turns out that the University of Colorado actually already has a graduate certificate on space domain awareness that ties together many of these aspects. Some of those aspects are physics based. Some are more information theory and controls based, and others tie into things like human factors and how operators can actually interpret what's going on up on orbit and make sense out of those things.

Cantwell: Well, now the deputy at NASA, Pam Melroy, she's basically said that this is a situation that's getting dire. So we've had a lot of commercial activity in the last 10 days. So what do you think the commercial space perspective is on this issue?

Holzinger: Can you repeat that last part?

Cantwell:  As we have people who are planning activities, and as the Deputy Director is calling it, we need a reliable space traffic system and the situation is getting dire. How do you think about where we are with commercial activity and this issue and the urgency of getting something done?

Holzinger: So in my opening statement, I'll repeat some of these some of these statements. It's both inspiring and terrifying. What the commercial space industry is doing, it's inspiring, because it's an excellent thing. Right? It's, it's an excellent avenue to grow our economy. And there's a lot of future potential and prosperity that we have the potential to reap in the future. It's terrifying in the sense that the current standards and methodologies that that we use, stem ultimately from the 60’s 70’s and 80’s, and haven't really leveraged the modern techniques that have been developed over the past couple decades.

And so from a university perspective, you know, I think that the best thing that we can do is to improve those means, methods and techniques, and to have as much of transparency and open information about those activities as possible on the commercial front.

Cantwell: And then identifying the type of technology we need, because if we're talking about smaller objects, and it's hard to track or hard to track their telemetry of how fast they're going, is that what we need?

Holzinger: Absolutely. So elements of that in terms of infrastructure include things like more sensors with better detection thresholds, the ability to collect and fuse that information in close to real time. The ability to fuse that information also with current space weather and to be able to issue indications and warnings of potentially deleterious effects.

Cantwell: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you again for this hearing.