We can't afford more of Schmitt's Three Stooges shenanigans.
#5. Space Junk
The last thing you'd expect when you go to space is an orbiting junkyard. But we've got one, in all its Sanford and Son glory, just hurtling itself around Earth waiting to clobber the big dummies who were stupid enough to put it up there in the first place.
Let's see dolphins make a mess this impressive.
Usually when we succeed at launching something into space, we also succeed at leaving something in space. Sometimes it's just a bolt, or a fleck of paint. Other times it's an entire spacecraft that's no longer functioning, like the satellite Vanguard I (that bad boy has been orbiting the planet for 50 years, and it's probably going to go 240 more before it re-enters Earth's atmosphere). There are spent rocket stages, defunct satellites, explosion fragments and even needles up there, reminding us that we are not only not very good at space, but also supergood at litterbugging.
Wait ... How Can That Kill Me?
Of course, you can see how running into an old rocket booster could do some damage to a space traveler. They're big and heavy; that makes sense. But a fleck of paint? Dust?
Dried paint flecks are a little scarier at 17,000 miles per hour.
You're probably imagining this space junk floating freely like an astronaut on a spacewalk, aren't you? The Blue Danube plays calmly as a little speck of Soviet scrap metal flitters and tosses in a slow-motion dance. If that's what you're picturing, you're doing it wrong. What you should be imagining is that fleck of paint racing at 17,000 miles per hour, and that same fleck colliding into a medium-size spacecraft and disabling it. Because it can.
What a fleck of paint did to the Challenger in 1983.
There are about 5,500 tons of space junk up above our heads right now, or about 600,000 objects larger than a centimeter. And only a tiny fraction of those are currently being tracked. Today's spacecraft shields can deflect only the stuff that's smaller than a centimeter, and the only way to avoid the rest is to maneuver the ship out of the way. But that works only if you know it's coming, which you probably wouldn't. Plus, when space junk collides with other stuff, as two satellites did in 2009, they make hundreds of baby space junks, each ready to start its own inevitable journey of spacecraft killing.
But even if we get supercareful about leaving bits of stuff around, space has plenty of natural flying debris for us to contend with. Cosmic dust, for instance. It's just what it sounds like: tiny little particles of dust, like what you have in your home right now. Only instead of being made of leftover Cheetos and cat hair, this dust is made of leftover asteroids. But it's dust nevertheless. Small, hard to detect and the sure sign of a careless space housewife.
"Oh no, that's ... that's probably fine. We'll rope it off or something."
It's not the individual particles of dust that will disable spaceships -- it's the accumulation of dust into clouds, which also travel at incredible rates. In 1967, NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft ran into a cloud of cosmic dust. The resulting onslaught was described as "a shower of meteoroids more intense than any Leonid meteor storm we've ever seen on Earth." Part of the insulation was ripped off, and the impact of the dust was so great that it changed the orientation of the Mariner. In other words, cosmic dust had enough force to knock a spacecraft off course. That's what future astronauts are going to have to avoid: untrackable, unstoppable pieces of trash and dirt clouds capable of destroying their billion-dollar ride home.