The general willingness of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to contemplate and possibly embrace changes in policy applies to the nation’s space activities, as demonstrated by the proposed cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program and the attention given to various space-related reviews during the past year (the Augustine committee on human spaceflight, the congressionally mandated Space Posture Review and the presidential study directive calling for a broad national space policy review). In this environment, members of the U.S. space community are anticipating the rewriting of existing directives on national space policy. We also should be pledging to conduct the policy formulation process differently than in the recent past.

It has become conventional wisdom that the United States should have a “comprehensive” national space policy that is revisited by each new administration. The original national space policy was created by the Eisenhower administration in the late 1950s, followed by a 20-year hiatus until the Carter administration sought to do something similar. Since then, each new occupant of the White House has redrafted and reissued a top-level space policy document using an increasingly cumbersome and time-consuming process.

An obvious problem with this approach is that the space enterprise has become so large and diverse that no single policy document can be truly comprehensive. For the past three decades, every administration has seen fit to issue multiple space policies targeting activities such as space transportation, commerce, remote sensing, navigation and exploration. Those targeted policies have been the ones that have provided the clearest guidance to U.S. agencies, influencing the development and implementation of their space-related programs. The last two administrations issued all of their targeted policies many months prior to their  national space policies.

If the targeted policies provide better guidance and tend to precede the national space policy, then what is the value of the national space policy? Many analysts say it’s needed to tie together the components of the space community’s activities and deliver “overarching” guidance. While it’s true that the various space sectors have become increasingly interdependent, their representation in national space policies is no more tied together than the selections on a restaurant menu. Once again, the targeted policies do a better job; no matter which specific activity is addressed, they must recognize and deal with the interplay between the civil, commercial and national security sectors. The only part of the national space policy that is overarching is the language at the beginning of the document laying out principles and goals.

Many interested parties believe the Obama administration should rewrite the national space policy directive soon, and complete it before undertaking any targeted policies. If this is done using the same approach as the previous two presidents’ administrations, lengthy and costly delays — not better policy — will be the result. Bill Clinton signed his national space policy three-and-a-half years into his presidency; for George W. Bush, it was five-and-a-half years, following nearly three years of effort by a host of hardworking people across the executive agencies.

The illusion of comprehensiveness compels every stakeholder agency to demand a seat at the table for every step of the process, even though they may be interested in only a small subset of the issues. During a significant portion of the gestation of the Bush policy, the staff of the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy presided over weekly interagency meetings involving 20 to 30 participants. The attendee list eventually was reduced, but over the three-year period, thousands of staff hours were expended to cover the frequent meetings and support the work within the agencies. Despite this huge effort, the result was a policy that the administration initially sought to keep at a very low profile and eventually portrayed as being not significantly different from the one it replaced.

It has long been recognized that certain basic space policy tenets have been with us since the early days of the space age and remain uncontroversial, such as the commitment to explore and use space for peaceful purposes, the rejection of claims of sovereignty in space, the importance of scientific discovery, and the desirability of international cooperation. In both the Clinton and Bush national space policies, the nation’s space principles and goals were stated in less than two pages. If the United States wishes to create an overarching space document, the solution should be a two- or three-page National Space Principles and Goals statement. If the drafters could resist the temptation to insert unnecessary language, this could be completed quickly because it would contain only the fundamentals that have been overwhelmingly agreed upon for the past half-century. It should not require an army of people to develop, and it should not need to be rewritten by each new administration.

The rest of the nation’s needs for top-level space guidance should be addressed by targeted space policies. This likely would result in a larger number of space policies than has been the case in recent administrations, but ultimately they could provide better guidance more quickly using fewer staff resources. Agency representatives could stay focused on their areas of expertise, and attend only those interagency meetings that addressed their interests, allowing concurrent development of multiple targeted policies.

Another important consideration in this process is whether the existing targeted policies need to be replaced or simply amended. The policies on remote sensing (National Security Presidential Directive 27, or NSPD-27, April 2003) and positioning, navigation and timing (NSPD-39, December 2004) are holding up quite well, and may need no more than updated language to reflect the implications of evolving international capabilities in these areas. In contrast, the policies on space exploration (NSPD-31, January 2004) and transportation (NSPD-40, December 2004) need to be completely rewritten because so much has changed, requiring significant rethinking and revised guidance.

New stand-alone documents on national security space, commercial space, orbital debris and space nuclear power may be desirable under this approach, but none of these needs to be more than a couple of pages.

An important addition would be a policy that combines space exploration and development, two endeavors that must be considered in parallel if both are to prosper. Exploration provides the science, adventure and inspiration, while development enhances the relevance to society and ultimately will generate wealth and thus provide the means to continue exploration. If moving human activity out into the solar system is among the nation’s goals, then exploration and development must share a long-term strategy that treats them as mutually reinforcing activities.

Space as a public policy issue has been around for only a half-century, so we are still developing fresh ideas on how to deal with it. One of our objectives should be that space policy should not present each new administration with a policy-formulation project that encompasses most of its time in office.


James A. Vedda is a senior policy analyst at the Aerospace Corp. in Arlington, Va., and author of the new book “Choice, Not Fate: Shaping a Sustainable Future in the Space Age.” The opinions expressed here are his own.