Trump Wants to Cut NASA’s Climate Science. but That’s Harder Than It Sounds
“If you stopped operations—if nobody manned the satellites—they would crash and spread space debris,” the engineer said. NASA currently tracks around 500,000 pieces of space debris traveling at extremely high speeds; satellite engineers must steer their spacecraft to avoid them. If a satellite crashes into a piece of debris, the satellite would splinter, possibly sending “40,000 or 50,0000 pieces of space debris into low earth orbit,” the engineer said. “Then you have to try to account for all those pieces of debris. That would be truly a crisis. They wouldn’t de-staff our teams just because of that danger.”
Transferring satellite operations to a different agency would be costly. NASA’s earth science satellites are operated in large part by contractors, many with five-year agreements, who use specialized equipment at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Severing those agreements, and physically moving those machines to a different agency’s headquarters, would be a massive headache. “All the engineers and scientists are geographically living near the center where we work,” the engineer said. “All the resources—all that stuff is geographically tied down.”
Even if the Trump administration wanted to remove those satellites from space entirely, the logistics and red tape surrounding the “deorbiting process”—delicately bringing a satellite back to Earth—can take “years and years,” said the engineer, who worries more about the administration leaving the satellites in place and simply ceasing data collection.