International Cooperation Emphasis of Obama Space Policy

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama’s new National Space Policy covers myriad issues and activities, from remote sensing to licensing of space-based nuclear power systems, but its emphasis on international cooperation has garnered the loudest response so far, particularly from those who criticized what they saw as a unilateralist slant in the previous administration’s space policy.

The cooperation envisioned under the new policy extends well beyond space exploration to include debris mitigation and collision avoidance, missile warning and arms control, according to White House officials and summary documents. Unveiled June 28, the policy supersedes 2006 guidance issued by then-U.S. President George W. Bush, which placed a strong emphasis on ensuring U.S. freedom of action in space.

Obama’s space policy reserves America’s right to protect its space systems, but also leaves the door open to international discussions aimed at limiting space-based weapons, something the Bush administration rejected on grounds that such arrangements would be difficult if not impossible to verify. The new policy also invites outside participation in developing key technologies for deep space exploration.

“The most striking change in the new National Space Policy is the recognition of mutual interdependence among the United States and the other space-capable countries of the world,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs here. “The policy acknowledges that the United States needs partners in making sure that space remains a sustainable environment for what this country wants to do in space, and commits the United States to take the lead in working with other countries to achieve that goal.”

Logsdon said the government now formally acknowledges that the United States will be better off if it shares responsibilities and costs in many areas while still retaining a unilateral capability in critical ones.

“This shift away from unilateral leadership to leadership among partners is a sea change,” he said. “The many specific cooperative activities outlined in the policy follow from that basic recognition.”

One area the administration views as ripe for international cooperation is developing options to counter the growing problem of orbital debris in an increasingly congested orbital environment. The urgency of this issue was driven home in early 2009 when a spent Russian satellite slammed into and destroyed an operational Iridium communications satellite.

“The policy seeks to minimize the creation of new debris and also to research operations for removing debris with other countries, and so you can see how international cooperation would be a very important foundation for this aspect of the policy,” Barry Pavel, senior director for defense policy and strategy at the White House National Security Council, said during a June 28 conference call with reporters.

Pavel said the United States could take the lead in developing options to counter the growing problem of congestion in Earth orbit.

“This policy also establishes a requirement to develop data sources and measures for space-based collision warning,” Pavel said. Specifically, the policy urges the Pentagon, the director of national intelligence and NASA to collaborate with industry and international partners on space collision warning measures. The goal would be a pursuit of common international standards for tracking objects in space, an effort that could include maintaining and improving space tracking databases as well as a means of sharing that data with industry and allies.

“This will also require the international community to provide data so we have a much more robust picture of what we need to see and be aware of in space,” Pavel said.

The new policy is not without critics, who focused on Obama’s plan, first unveiled in February, to scrap NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program in favor of a more flexible approach that takes advantage of new technologies and features significant international contributions.

“The Administration is yet again trying to sell this country a failed space policy that irrevocably diminishes our central role in space exploration,” U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said in a press release issued June 28. Utah is home to ATK Aerospace, which faces heavy job losses if Constellation is canceled.

Scott Pace, director of the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, similarly questioned the rationale for canceling Constellation. “Compared to the relative logic and implementation of the rest of the policy, that is the part that seems weak,” he said.

Not all of the critics focused on the policy’s human exploration aspects, however. Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a think tank here, said Obama’s policy does not go far enough in terms of putting international confidence-building measures on the agenda. “The [National Space Policy’s] reticence to foreshadow what diplomatic initiatives will follow and the absence of an endorsement in principle of a Code of Conduct is not reassuring,” Krepon wrote in a June 30 analysis of the new policy. Krepon was referring to expectations that the Obama doctrine would adopt some sort of code of conduct for U.S. space operations that other nations would be encouraged to follow as well.

“The administration’s intention and commitment level on space diplomacy will become clearer in due course,” Krepon wrote.

In a June 28 statement, Obama reflected on the ways in which U.S. imperatives and obligations in space have changed in recent decades.

“No longer are we racing against an adversary; in fact, one of our central goals is to promote peaceful cooperation and collaboration in space, which not only will ward off conflict, but will help to expand our capacity to operate in orbit and beyond,” Obama said. “In addition, this policy recognizes that as our reliance on satellites and other space-based technologies increases, so too does our responsibility to address challenges such as debris and other hazards.”