Editorial: The Space Policy’s Potential

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U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Space Policy, at least the version that’s been made public, strikes positive chords with its calls for international cooperation and, more importantly, preservation of the increasingly congested space environment. It also gives appropriate emphasis to nurturing the U.S. commercial space sector and shoring up the nation’s space industrial base.

Whether the guidance will have any material impact in the years ahead will depend on any number of factors, including follow-through. For example, the document links the goal of energizing a competitive U.S. space industry with export reform, which the Obama administration has made a priority. This is welcome and long overdue, of course, but it remains to be seen whether the reforms now being proposed will truly untie the hands of America’s space industry, and in any case better access to overseas markets will not likely offset what looks to be a sharp and sustained drop in U.S. military space spending.

Clearly the United States cannot maintain military spending at the levels seen over the last decade, but there are indications that the White House is moving the pendulum too far in the other direction; U.S. industry executives openly fret about having their research-and-development edges dulled by the lack of large-scale competitive space procurements at the Pentagon.

That the new policy came out less than 18 months into President Obama’s term in office could be taken a sign that space in general is a big priority for his administration. Former President George W. Bush was nearly six years in office before he issued his National Space Policy, although that document was preceded by policies governing space activity sectors such as launch and commercial remote sensing.

But one also has to consider the current president’s penchant for distancing himself from his predecessor as a motivating factor. Interestingly, much of the praise for the new policy is based on its marked tonal contrast to the Bush policy, which was loudly criticized by arms control advocates — who had long harbored reasonable suspicions that the Bush administration was intent on developing space weapons — for its unilateralist themes.

Indeed, the Bush policy was emphatic about preserving U.S. freedom of action in space and specifically said the United States would oppose any international agreements that might be limiting in that regard. “Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests,” the publicly released version of that policy said.

President Obama’s policy broadcasts an entirely different message; it says the United States “will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable and enhance the security of the United States and its allies.”

While that language has a nice internationalist ring to it, consistent with Mr. Obama’s rhetoric about repairing America’s image abroad, the likelihood of a negotiated ban on space weapons is probably no greater under this administration than it was under the previous one. For a number of reasons, including the fact that a ground-based missile can be programmed to destroy a satellite, space weapons are as hard to define as to positively identify; verifying a treaty banning space weapons would be next to impossible. Ironically, technologies for removing on-orbit debris, which would make space a safer place to operate and are endorsed in the new policy, could also be used in an anti-satellite role.

Far more realistic than a space weapons ban are prospects for international confidence-building measures to encourage responsible actions in space, which under the new policy will be pursued on a bilateral and multinational basis. The recognition that space is an increasingly cluttered environment that must be preserved through such measures as debris mitigation guidelines, improved space situational awareness and better data sharing could be the greatest strength of the new policy — again, provided there is follow-through by the administration.

As was starkly demonstrated in early 2009 when a spent Russian satellite pulverized an active Iridium communications craft, space junk is a bona fide threat; close calls involving debris and operational spacecraft — including the international space station — are frequent occurrences.

Crowding along the geostationary-orbit arc, meanwhile, has greatly magnified the potential consequences of satellite failures or navigational errors. Geostationary satellite operators Intelsat and SES recently resorted to a combination of deft orbital maneuvers and signal rerouting to avert what could have been a major service outage caused by a failed but still active Intelsat satellite as it drifted into the neighborhood of a functioning SES craft. This required unprecedented cooperation between the two competitors that should serve as a model for handling incidents of this sort.

President Obama’s policy specifically calls for developing space collision warning measures that could involve sharing orbital tracking data, which is often sensitive, among U.S. agencies and with private and foreign government entities. The Pentagon, which operates the world’s most sophisticated space-object tracking network, already does this — though not always to everyone’s satisfaction. If the new policy makes the current system more effective, and more generally helps make Earth orbit a safer place for all operators, it will be an important accomplishment for this administration.