Op-ed | Building Back Better: Critical first issues for a successful Biden space policy

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Outer space activities are more important to the United States now than at almost any time in our history. Space technology and services provide critical national security capabilities, scientific knowledge, economic opportunities, and the tools to understand and respond to a changing climate. As the Biden administration looks to rejoin international initiatives, such the Paris Climate Agreement, and reemphasize major global initiatives, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, it is critical that the incoming administration recognizes and recommits to the role that space technology plays in these efforts. The rapid growth in new actors conducting space activities, an increasing number of active satellites and debris objects, and the growing potential for conflict create both opportunities and challenges that require timely policy responses from the incoming administration.

Under the leadership of the National Space Council, solid progress was made on updating space-related policy for the changing space situation. While some of the Trump administration’s space policy decisions and initiatives generated criticism, this was often due to the surrounding political rhetoric rather than the substance itself. Many Trump space policy decisions built on work started under the Obama administration and continue long-standing principles and goals that have persisted across administrations, Republican and Democrat, because they reflect core American values and national interests. First and foremost among those interests is sustained U.S. international leadership in ensuring the long-term sustainability, safety, and security of the space domain and space activities. This is not done out of pure altruism, but to ensure that the United States, including the government and all its citizens, can continue to use space for benefits into the future. This situation offers the Biden administration a solid foundation to build from.

We urge the Biden administration to place a high priority on supporting U.S. space activities by building on recent national space policy decisions that reflect long-standing U.S. principles while abandoning the divisive and antagonistic rhetoric that has accompanied those policy changes. Consistency across key national space efforts, such as retaining the National Space Council and building out the commercial space sector, the Space Force, and the Artemis Program and Accords, will help move the United States forward and demonstrate stability to international partners by avoiding the constant reset and lack of strategic direction that has happened in the past during presidential transitions. At the same time, there are significant challenges that remain unresolved and will need bold leadership, both at home and abroad, to be fully addressed.

In the coming weeks, Secure World Foundation will be releasing Space Policy and Sustainability: Issue Briefing for the Incoming U.S. Administration, a report that will provide an overview of current space policies and a set of recommendations for the Biden administration to achieve space sustainability. This article is a preview of those recommendations, with an emphasis on the most urgent considerations for the transition team.

First, creating and implementing national space policy needs to be a whole-of-government process that integrates perspectives, capabilities, and interests from across all relevant federal agencies. In 2016, the Trump administration revived the National Space Council to formalize a separate space policy process and raise its visibility within the federal bureaucracy and the public. The Biden administration should continue to use the National Space Council as the main body for developing and coordinating national space policy. They can build on the Council’s success by staffing it with experts who understand both the interagency process and the importance of space, and by reforming the Council’s existing User Advisory Group to increase the representation of a diverse range of users of space services and applications.

SPACE SUSTAINABILITY

Of immediate concern to nearly everyone in the space industry is the growing risk from orbital debris, which consists of dead satellites, spent rocket stages, and other pieces that have accumulated in orbit around Earth over the last 60 years. The on-going deployment of large constellations of thousands of commercial satellites only heightens discussions concerning the risks of space debris and collision with other spacecraft, as well as challenges to space traffic management and risk of radiofrequency interference amongst all current and future spacecraft.

Managing these risks is a collective action problem that will require stakeholders to adopt new practices and accept costs now to forestall large negative impacts to space activities in the future. The Biden administration should work with both houses of Congress to swiftly implement space traffic management functions and authority in a single federal civil agency, as recommended by the National Academy of Public administration’s report on space traffic management. In doing so, the U.S. government needs to implement a more holistic approach for space situational awareness and space traffic management that expands the authorities of federal civil agencies, incorporates private sector capabilities, and increases international collaboration. The U.S. government should also lead the creation of incentives to encourage responsible behavior in space by both government and private sector actors.

Furthermore, driven predominantly by American companies and organizations, commercial space activity is in the midst of a worldwide expansion, including new actors, new application areas, and new business models. The government needs a space policy approach that sustains this growth, orients it for economic and societal benefit, and takes into consideration both the need for effective regulation and the government’s role as a customer. Commercial space activities will be part of an economy for the future, and the incoming administration has the opportunity to build on the existing momentum in American private space sector activity.

In addition, in order to improve linkages between commercial space and foreign and trade policy, the new administration should pursue an active strategy of diplomatic and civil society dialogue on international approaches to commercial space sector policy, including with competitor nations. This approach will help to identify and share regulatory best practices, reduce risk of regulatory fragmentation and forum shopping, and potentially help to identify trade opportunities for U.S. companies.

U.S. SPACE FORCE

Domestically, space capabilities are a crucial enabler for U.S. national security. Growing reliance on space and the proliferation of counterspace capabilities have increased concerns about how to protect and defend national space capabilities in future conflicts. The United States needs to quickly enact a multi-pronged approach to ensuring the resiliency of its space assets that includes more responsive space launch, proliferated satellite architectures across multiple orbits and payloads, and more use of commercial and allied capabilities. Further, the Biden administration should work with other countries to establish norms of behavior for military space activities, and particularly those that could cause misperceptions or increase tensions, such as rendezvous and proximity operations and anti-satellite testing. In December 2019, the U.S. Space Force (USSF) was officially created as the sixth military service, capping off a multi-decade debate over how best to organize U.S. military space activities. Unfortunately, this rollout has been marred by bombastic language and posturing which has created considerable misperceptions and overshadowed the value of this new organization. The Biden administration should make a policy statement that clarifies the future missions for the USSF and its role in U.S. space activities as well as delineating between civil and military space activities in Earth orbit and beyond. Finally, the incoming administration should work to clarify the restrictions international law places on military space activities.

Related to this, for the last several decades, the United States has been unsettled by China’s space programs and plans, a dynamic which is reflective of the larger Sino-American relationship. In an attempt to constrain China’s space program, the U.S. has put in place burdensome laws and policies that more often than not end up harming U.S. companies while doing little to impede China’s progress in space. While recognizing that China is a serious competitor, the U.S. can still benefit from finding ways in which to engage with one of the few other major space superpowers. For instance, the Biden administration should work with Congress to modify the Wolf Amendment to allow NASA to engage in space activities with China that support U.S. national interests.

SPACE EXPLORATION

As the Biden administration seeks to reaffirm the country’s role as a participant in global alliances, it should not overlook the importance of NASA’s space exploration initiatives. The administration should work with Congress to establish bipartisan support for a sustained U.S.-led international presence on the moon and in cislunar space that serves as the cornerstone of further space exploration and development to Mars and beyond. In doing so, the administration should reaffirm a commitment to the Artemis Program and a return of U.S. and international partner astronauts to the moon on an achievable timeline that leverages commercial capabilities. Furthermore, the Artemis Accords represent an important diplomatic tool for developing norms of behavior for future government and commercial space activities. Continuing to expand the group of nations that have adopted the Accords, or the principles contained within, is an important step towards ensuring stability and creating a path towards sustainable human space exploration activities. Taking the above actions demonstrates that the U.S. remains a respected partner in the global community.

The importance of space capabilities cannot be taken for granted. The space domain is becoming increasingly complex and congested, and there is no guarantee that space will continue to be a secure, sustainable, and peaceful environment. Three major trends, the rapid growth in new actors conducting space activities, an increasing number of active satellites and debris objects, and the growing potential for conflict, create both opportunities and challenges that require timely policy responses. As the world’s leading space power, the United States can remain at the forefront of most space activities and is well-positioned to enable global coalitions that leverage the contributions of space activities for security, economic, and societal benefits.


Krystal Azelton, Ian Christensen, Chris Johnson, Victoria Samson, and Brian Weeden are staff members at the Secure World Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the long-term sustainability of space for benefits on Earth.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.