T here has been a lot of discussion of the new statement of National Space Policy in these pages and elsewhere, especially since the general media finally took notice of its existence Oct. 18, almost two weeks after it was posted on the Office of Science and Technology Policy Web site.
Most of the commentary to date seems to focus on old policy stated in new language, and to miss the policy initiatives that are part of the statement. If one has been paying attention over the past five-plus years, there is nothing new with respect to space issues in the attitude of U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration towards arms control, multilateral negotiations, international treaties limiting U.S. freedom of action, or the intent of the United States to protect its critical assets in space and to deny an adversary the use of hostile space capabilities in times of armed conflict. In particular, the concept of space control set out in the policy is very similar to that in the 1996 Clinton space policy statement.
Perhaps it is gathering past policy pronouncements in one place with the imprimatur of the president that so worries critics of the new policy — but most of them have been (appropriately, in my view) worried about the national security space posture of the Bush White House and the Rumsfeld Department of Defense since January 2001. It is quite understandable that they would view this policy statement with suspicion, even alarm.
What is a bit more worrisome is how the leadership of other countries, who have not been closely monitoring U.S. space security debates, will react to such a nationalistic version of existing policy. One can hope that they have become used to this administration’s approach to international interactions, and will focus on the strong call for international cooperation in peaceful space activities. The definition of “peaceful” in the policy — as allowing “U. S. defense and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests” — is one that has been held by every administration since Dwight Eisenhower. There is certainly some chest-thumping in the policy’s language, but realistically nothing that should seem threatening to a U.S. ally.
Other critics deplore the absence of the words “Moon” or “Mars” in the policy statement, suggesting that their absence indicates that the White House does not support the Vision for Space Exploration. But the Moon and Mars are just destinations, and the statement lists as the top civilian space goal to “implement and sustain an innovative human and robotic exploration program with the objective of extending human presence across the solar system,” which is the essence of the vision. So this criticism of the policy seems misplaced. There is little in the policy specifically relevant to NASA, most probably because the White House thinks that NASA-specific issues were adequately addressed in January 2004 with the announcement of the vision.
There is indeed much that is substantively new in the new policy, but so far no one seems to be noticing. The policy singles out for top-level attention four areas that most observers would agree are currently broken: the development of a high-quality cadre of space professionals; improving development and procurement systems for space systems; enhancing interagency cooperation; and strengthening the space science, technology and industrial base. This focus on improving the performance of the U.S. space community, when coupled with the statements that “the conduct of U. S. space programs and activities shall be a top priority” and that “the United States must have robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities,” will hopefully lead to follow-up policy and budget initiatives to address current shortfalls. No past national space policy has so directly addressed these kinds of issues.
Another issue newly receiving attention is the need for “reliable access to and use of radio frequency spectrum and orbital assignments.” As the United States makes increased use of outer space for a wide variety of civilian, commercial and security purposes, it must be able to count on such access. No prior policy statement has recognized this fact.
It is well known by the attentive space community that most of this policy statement was agreed to more than two years ago, and that the sticking point that forced the 35-plus drafts of the policy before it was sent to President Bush for approval was the tense relationship with respect to space matters between the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. The creation of the position of Director of National Intelligence only exacerbated this tension. It would likely take a Talmudic scholar to parse out the different roles assigned to the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence by the policy, and to understand the bureaucratic conflicts underpinning the final distribution of responsibilities. It is, however, a positive step that the need for effective space situational awareness for all space activities, civil and commercial as well as national security, is called out by the policy. This is another area where there is need for significant improvements over current capabilities.
One could wish that what in substance is a comprehensive statement of national space policy that reiterates most past policies and adds important new areas for attention had not been expressed in what The New York Times characterized as “bellicose” language. But it would be out of character for this administration to have acted otherwise. Tone is of course important — words count. But substance is even more important, and in terms of substance the new statement of national space policy is most welcome.
John M. Logsdon is director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.