May 20, 2021

Immediate Action Needed to Address Space Rocket Reentry Hazard

On May 14, ALPA president Capt. Joe DePete sent a letter to ICAO secretary general Dr. Fang Liu calling attention to the threat posed by the reentry of debris from orbit. In the last two months, there have been two uncontrolled reentries of rockets, including a March 25 SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage that reentered over the northwest United States and southwest Canada, and the recent May 9 reentry of a Long March 5B first stage to which ALPA alerted members. In the Falcon 9 incident, debris as heavy as 300 lbs. (136.7 kg) survived to fall on Washington state and likely parts of Canada.

While the Long March reentered over the Indian Ocean about 50 minutes early, the last prediction of its reentry had a four-hour window of uncertainty. If it had been instead 15 minutes late, it would have reentered over central Florida. A late reentry of 105 minutes would have placed any debris in the airspace above Washington, D.C., along a line from Texas to New Jersey.

ALPA is urging ICAO to work with the United Nations to develop global standards for launch planning and recovery, to promote standards for vehicles that are designed to burn up entirely upon reentry, to work with national regulators and air navigation service providers to provide timely warning of any reentry, and to have procedures to route aircraft away from potential reentry hazards.