- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

The complaints from other planets are due to arrive any second: The Space Shuttle Atlantis left a few unmentionables behind during its recent big mission, including a “mystery object” that turned out to be a garbage bag that had escaped from the cargo bay.

Uh-oh. We left some trash floating 220 miles above Earth, and now we’re in trouble with the cosmic sanitation department. Wait a minute — (sound effect: whizzing and squealing noises) — a message is coming in right now:

Attn. Earth: Please be advised that free-floating trash expulsion is unacceptable in the greater solar system. We strongly recommend that you sign the enclosed Intergalactic Garbage Agreement. Please review standard space trash protocols, including special provisions for trash disposal near comets, geomagnetic storms and Pluto. In the future, your vessel will be ticketed and possibly impounded should we encounter personal planetary refuse beyond your exosphere. Respectfully, Trash Agent Fritz Poom, Intergalactic Garbage Unit No. 4, Mars Station.

Oh, heavens. How shocking. Quick, annihilate us now. Hurry up and destroy the ozone layer so Al Gore can be happy. We left behind a piece of plastic. Oh. Oh. Well, we can only imagine what garbage is like from Mars. Or Pluto.

All in all, the shuttle left behind the garbage bag and two bolts, according to breathless press reports that tracked the bag saga minute by minute on Sept. 20, when the shuttle’s return to Earth was delayed for a day as NASA endeavored to find out if the bag was dangerous, leaky or filled with unseemly old fried-chicken bones.

Journalists seized upon the story, hoping that just once, attractive aliens in gas-saving vehicles had pulled up beside Atlantis and would be available for a press conference. The pale white object was in “co-orbit” with Atlantis, they wrote. It was “shadowing” the shuttle. Editors everywhere dreamed of the ultimate E.T. headline: “Astronauts Enjoy Martinis and Goat Cheese With Fashionable Space People.”

At Blockbuster stores across the nation, all copies of “The Queen of Outer Space” with Zsa Zsa Gabor were rented. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were standing by.

The mystery object — “M.O.”— was a garbage bag on the lam, a NASA spokesman later confirmed.

Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas no doubt wondered if all this could be turned into a workable script, maybe with an introduction by Mr. Gore and a tie-in with Mattel toys.

Actually, the bag itself was quite picturesque during its 15 minutes of fame, floating gracefully in photographs the astronauts snapped, a little celestial white orb in a great expanse of deep blue. When NASA determined it posed no threat to Atlantis, the agency also revealed that a total of three little pieces of garbage — oh, oh, we mean “orbital debris” — were left in the shuttle’s wake.

So the Martians shouldn’t get too excited. This time, anyway. We have, however, left other stuff behind.

Earthlings have been leaving the detritus of our space experiments floating in various parts of the atmosphere for nearly 50 years. Four million pounds of it are zinging along up there at 17,398 miles per hour, according to the U.S. Space Command — 11,000 hunks, chunks, bits and pieces, from errant bolts to defunct satellites.

There is so much space junk up there that NASA maintains an Orbital Debris Program Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Splendid, but somewhat alarming computer-generated graphic images pinpointing the debris are available at the office’s Web site (www.orbital debris.jsc.nasa.gov).

Hmm. Maybe the Martian complaint bears some thought.

In 1965, astronaut Edward White managed to lose a spare glove during the first American space walk. Yes, it’s still up there in a decaying orbit, deemed “the most dangerous garment in history” by Robert Roy Britt of Space.com. The oldest hunk of junk is the second U.S. satellite, Vanguard I, which was launched 48 years ago. This stuff may remain in orbit, scientists surmise, for centuries. Oh, and one piece of “cataloged debris” has fallen to Earth every day for the past 40 years, happily without injury to man or beast.

Meanwhile, all the good sports at the North American Aerospace Defense Command have to help monitor the bigger chunks, just in case something larger than a glove appears to be falling on Chicago. But then, the agency has tracked the route of Santa Claus from the North Pole to points south every Dec. 24 for the past 51 years, so space garbage shouldn’t present too big a problem.

Everyone’s pretty trashy though. Space explorers from 45 assorted countries and government agencies have left funky little presents behind — from the European Space Agency to Japan, France, India and Britain. The Russians have more space garbage above the planet than we do. At last count, the Russian Space Agency could take credit for 3,941 old satellites, space probes and tacky debris, the Americans 3,758. So hey, you, Trash Agent Fritz Poom. Send the ticket to Moscow, please.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and free-floating trash expulsions for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at [email protected] or 202/636-3085.

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