This year my brother would have been 33, if he’d have lived. In late January, I let the date of his birthday pass by, intentionally trying to pay it no attention. Instead I spent the day working, watching my son, and thinking about an article from a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek on space junk, and the website from NASA I’d visited when doing further research.
It turns out that NASA has a whole office dedicated to orbital debris, whose job it is to track the more than 20,000 pieces larger than 4 inches in size that circle beyond the edges of our sky. Of the smaller objects, the ones they don’t track, they estimate that the number “probably exceeds tens of millions.” They even publish a newsletter, called Orbital Debris Quarterly News, which discusses things like proposed technology for removal, the potential risks for damage to existing satellites, and the disturbing number of objects populating around the International Space Station.
The article itself talked about the issues surrounding debris removal in space. There is the cost factor, yes, but there is also the fact that there is, as of yet, no agreement between different countries on how to go about cleaning up the problem, or agreement as to whether or not it even is a problem that needs solving at all. But all I kept thinking about was not the space nets to be powered by sun, or even the robotic arms to be attached to space crafts and piloted by interstellar garbage men, cleanup crews whose training and pay grade would likely be higher than I could ever aspire to. I didn’t even spend all that much time wondering if there would be a space garbage company bidding war, where men in company uniforms went government to government, promising the lowest prices in exchange for a multi-year contract, akin the man from Aspen Waste who came knocking on the door to my house one recent evening, in the midst of a snow storm, with his clipboard and green truck.
Instead, I just kept imagining those aimless hunks of metal, unable to navigate, their bodies purposeless and drifting beyond the edges of Earth’s atmosphere. I kept seeing the debris floating about, so many bits of metal, country-less citizens of nowhere, never touching, except by accident. It seemed so lonely to me, to be space junk, weightless amid stars.
I know that to feel sadness over stuff abandoned in space, whether intentionally discarded at takeoff or for other reasons is perhaps a bit silly, and perhaps also a sign that this cold weather is getting to me. After all, I’ve been stuck in the house for weeks with a small child and a husband recovering from surgery. One can’t really talk, and the other hasn’t wanted to. I don’t even have to leave to go to work, and so all I see lately from my office window is white, tufts of snow covering the yard, white billowing from the roof in the wind, white frozen and clinging to tree branches, white, ridged by tire tracks in the road. But my brother didn’t live, so I wasn’t celebrating a birthday. Instead, all I have left now is a box of pieces of him too small to be counted. Flakes of ash too small, like those bits NASA leaves off their graphs. Such small pieces. How could I track where they might go, what kind of damage they might leave?