Space is big. The scale of outer space is so grand that humans can’t comprehend it. To boot, humans have difficulty with long-term thinking. This has resulted in an emerging tragedy of the commons, in orbital space. About 95% of what’s up there is in orbit space junk such as dead satellites, out-of-control space stations, bolts, used rocket parts, lost astronaut tools, according to a Business Insider article.
This space junk moves ten times faster than a bullet. It stays up in orbit for years before Earth’s gravity pulls it back down. According to NASA, an average of one piece of tracked debris fell back to Earth each day during the past 50 years, but no serious injury or significant property damage has been confirmed due to them. The orbital debris present threats to spacecraft, space stations, satellites. In the dreaded Kessler syndrome, space debris collides with other debris, creating more pieces and more collisions in a rapid chain reaction.
Most of the 95% of human-made orbital debris is small. There are around 170 million smaller bits of junk less than a half inch in size orbiting the earth at tens of thousands of miles per hour. There are about 5,000 pieces of space junk from Russia / the former USSR, another 4,700 from the USA, and China ranks third with around 3,500. France, Japan, India, and the European Space Agency have also contributed over 1,000. Space exploring nations have agreed to minimize new junk. However, we don’t have a technical solution allowing us to pull down roughly 15,000 pieces of space junk.
“It’s not just a technical issue. This idea of ownership gets to be a real player here,” aerospace engineer Bill Ailor is quoted in the article. “No other nation has permission to touch a US satellite, for instance. And if we went after a satellite … it could even be deemed an act of war.”
This reminded me of situations that I ran into often in the days when I was helping do kaizen events. Company K has problems getting enough good quality product to customers on-time. All departments unwittingly contribute to their problem by multi-tasking, batching, and putting too much burden their people and processes. After a few people agreed with me that this was a waste, and that it would be good to stop, team members would bring up the “ownership issue”. We can’t change that, because it’s belongs to purchasing. Engineering will never agree to that. The crew on second shift will never agree to do it that way. Etc. The problem was rarely a technical challenge, it was a matter of communication, getting people on the same side of a problem, and asking to try a new method devised by the kaizen team. A consultant was as much a communication facilitator as a kaizen facilitator in these cases.
Ridding our enterprises of the 95% of time, energy and effort that is wasted is not a technical challenge. It hasn’t been for decades. Toyota and others have solved the riddle of modern management. The biggest hurdle in defeating process debris, however, is likely human. It is an ownership issue. We don’t share problems, or give each other permission to take common sense action to solve problems, or reach beyond our self-imposed boundaries. This explains why aliens have yet to visit earth. All other sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in the universe eventually trap themselves onto their own planets by a deadly cascade of speeding space junk. It’s a shame they couldn’t just talk it over and get past their ownership issues.