Every recent presidential administration has put its stamp on space policy through a formal national space policy document. Sometimes that comes fairly early in an administration, like President Obama did with his policy that was released less than a year and a half after taking office. By contrast, President George W. Bush waited until nearly halfway through his second term to release his space policy.
As its first term nears its end, the Trump administration has yet to issue its own national space policy, despite a wave of more specific space policy documents on everything from space traffic management to the Space Force. Perhaps the closest it’s come so far to an overarching policy is the release of a National Space Council report July 23 on space exploration and development.
That topic is usually associated primarily, if not exclusively, with NASA, but the report made the case that space exploration and development is a government-wide responsibility. “Although NASA is, and will remain, the leader for U.S. government space exploration efforts, other departments and agencies will have increasingly important roles in space,” it states.
“A lot of people aren’t aware of how our approach on space was not just about NASA, was not just about Space Force,” said a senior administration official, speaking on background about the report. “It actually is an approach that we’re looking at across the government.”
The report itself doesn’t set any new policies. Instead, it outlines the ongoing efforts to increase commercial activities in low Earth orbit, send humans back to the moon and, ultimately, on to Mars. While NASA is leading those efforts, the report explains how a “whole-of-government approach” is needed to achieve them.
That approach, the report argues, goes beyond just developing the rockets and spacecraft needed for missions to the moon and Mars. It outlines several roles for various government agencies to support that approach. One is a “secure and predictable space environment” that incorporates elements of Space Policy Directives 2 and 3 on regulatory reform and space traffic management, efforts led by the Commerce and Transportation Departments, not NASA.
Other roles include assisting development of commercial activities and industry in space, supporting research and development, and assisting the creation of private space infrastructure by “being a reliable customer.” All assume a wide range of government agencies will be involved.
To illustrate that, the report included appendices outlining current and proposed programs supporting space exploration and development, organized by agency. NASA had by far the most, but there were entries for many other agencies, including less obvious ones like the Interior Department, whose U.S. Geological Survey has a planetary geologic mapping program, and the State Department, which is assisting NASA on the Artemis Accords and related international agreements. Even the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security are mentioned for technology development and cybersecurity work.
“It’s not a binding policy document, but it’s something that indicates an exploration rationale for our priorities as we go forward,” that official said, adding it may be particularly useful explaining the administration’s approach with prospective international partners.
The report isn’t a replacement for a national space policy, and leaves out a lot of the national security and other issues such a policy would contain. It does, though, illustrate how agencies would work together to achieve broader goals, at least in theory.
As for a formal national space policy, that’s still reportedly in development at the White House, although given a lower priority because of the ongoing pandemic. The goal is to have that policy completed by the end of the year — which might be just in time, depending on the outcome of the election. Until then, this document offers perhaps the most coordinated view yet on civil and commercial space policy, one that might be worth retaining regardless of who is in the White House next year.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the Aug. 3, 2020 issue.