Soviet Space, Orbital Debris Expert Nick Johnson Passes Away

Soviet Space, Orbital Debris Expert Nick Johnson Passes Away

Nick Johnson, the former head of NASA’s orbital debris office and a leader in developing the IADC space debris mitigation guidelines, has passed away at the age of 71. Prior to joining NASA in the 1990s, Johnson was a renowned expert on Soviet space programs, publishing comprehensive annual reports for Teledyne Brown Engineering.

Nicholas L. Johnson was NASA’s Chief Scientist for Orbital Debris from 1996 until his retirement in 2014, heading the orbital debris program office at Johnson Space Center. During his tenure, he spearheaded efforts to highlight the dangers posed by space debris and develop internationally-recognized guidelines for how to mitigate them.

Working through the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Johnson and his U.S. and international colleagues established the Inter-Agency Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) that developed the IADC guidelines in use today.

Bill Ailor, a Technical Fellow at the Aerospace Corporation who worked closely with Johnson over the decades on space debris issues, told that he was “a great leader in moving the space debris issue forward in the U.S. and worldwide. He had a great understanding of junk in space and how it was created, and he sparked research projects to collect data and provide a solid foundation for current and future mitigation efforts.”

Johnson was deeply involved in Operation Burnt Frost, the 2008 operation where the United States destroyed one of its own satellites, USA-193, for safety reasons and was determined not to create a cloud of space debris as China had done the year before during an antisatellite (ASAT) test. China used an interceptor to destroy one of its old weather satellites, creating more than 3,500 pieces of debris that continue to plague low Earth orbit today. The Secure World Foundation reports that over 2,800 are still in orbit.

Some analysts have speculated over the years that the United States actually was using the USA-193 situation to demonstrate that it, too, had an ASAT capability. Last year, Johnson wrote a compelling first-person account of Operation Burnt Frost to push back against that narrative and tell the story of exactly what happened.

USA-193 malfunctioned shortly after launch and ground controllers could not communicate with it and therefore could not control it. Carrying 1,000 pounds of hydrazine propellant in a titanium tank that might survive reentry, the United States was concerned it might reenter over a populated area and release the hydrazine, causing significant harm. On February 20, 2008, a missile launched from a U.S. Navy Aegis cruiser impacted and destroyed the satellite, creating just 174 pieces of debris. All pieces reentered by October 2009 according to the Secure World Foundation’s report.

Johnson’s account, Operation Burst Frost: A View from Inside, was recently published in the quarterly journal Space Policy. The journal’s publisher, Elsevier, is making the article available for free for one year in his honor.

Gen. Kevin Chilton, then commander of U.S. Strategic Command, awarded Johnson the DOD Joint Meritorious Civilian Service Award for his “critical contributions” to that mission.

JSC2008-E-055513 (30 July 2008) — Gen. Kevin Chilton (left), commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, pins Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris, with the Department of Defense Joint Meritorious Civilian Service Award for his critical contributions to the successful interception of a non-functional DoD satellite. The honoree’s wife, Mrs. Beth Johnson, looks on. The general, a former astronaut, presented the award to Johnson during a July 30 ceremony at JSC. Credit: NASA JSC.

Before winning renown for his space debris work, Johnson was already very well known in space policy circles through his analysis of Soviet space activities during the 1980s. His annual “Soviet Year in Space” reports for Teledyne Brown Engineering provided detailed information based on open source documents during the Cold War era.

Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and former Executive Secretary of the White House National Space Council, called Johnson a “consummate professional, patriot, and a gentleman.” In an email to, Pace added “Whether it was analyzing Soviet space power during the Cold War or improving our understanding of today’s increasingly crowded space environment, Nick helped make the world a safer and better place. His friends, colleagues, and the global space community all miss him deeply.”

Born in Minneapolis, MN, Johnson served tours of duty with both the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy and was a Vietnam Veteran.  He earned a B.S. in physics from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) in 1974 and was honored as a Distinguished Alumnus of the university in 1989. Among his many other awards, he received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, and the Order of Yuri Gagarin, Russian Federation of Cosmonautics Award.

According to an obituary published by the Kilgore Funeral Home in Tullahoma, TN, Johnson died on April 12, 2021.  He is survived by his wife, Beth, and their son Kevin and family.


Editor’s Note:  I knew Nick quite well back when I was at the Congressional Research Service and he was at Teledyne Brown. We published annual reports on U.S., Soviet and other launching countries’ space activities that were very complementary to Nick’s Soviet Year in Space reports, in addition to our quinquennial “green books” on Soviet space programs for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. He was a wonderful colleague, always open to sharing information and insights, and, as Scott said, a consummate professional and gentleman.  Ad astra, Nick!

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