The danger of space debris receives little attention on the Hill for a subject so important to our collective safety and prosperity. In fact, as these hazardous space artifacts continue to multiply over time, our current ability to identify and track credible debris threats are stretched to the limit. And, as our visibility diminishes, we may be unable to respond should debris land on a course towards a satellite or other system in space. Whether it’s for a few hours, a day, a month or indefinitely, losing the functionality of our satellites is something our country cannot afford.

Why should you worry about this problem? Our everyday lives heavily depend on space. Meteorologists can more accurately predict the strength and path of a storm thanks to advance weather satellites. College basketball fans can thank a cable satellite for uninterrupted March Madness coverage. Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) – some of our most critical assets in space – do more than just get us from point A to point B. GPS supports critical global infrastructures such as power grids, air traffic control, military operations, banking operations and even farming, to name a few.

The Air Force’s existing system for monitoring space junk has operated since the 1960s and performed its mission valiantly. Fifty years ago, however, no one could have predicted just how many objects would be orbiting our planet. Enter the Air Force’s new Space Fence program, scheduled to become operational in 2017. It will increase the number of objects detected from 20,000 to 200,000 and will provide better accuracy at further distances. This will mean enhanced situational awareness in space, which means increased protection of our most critical and expensive space assets and greater national security.
According to the Space Foundation’s last annual report, the global space economy that Space Fence will protect represents more than $290 billion – not to mention the dependence of our national infrastructure on space. Congressional budget cuts have already delayed the operational start date of Space Fence by two years. While fiscal responsibility dictates that we must deal with the earthly realities of today’s economy, we must not forget how closely tied to space the health of that economy is.

Kennedy is president of Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems business.