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Chinese debris ilustration
The 2007 Chinese ASAT test, creating a dangerous cloud of space debris, is one factor that led the White House to quickly develop a new space policy, administration officials said. (credit: AGI)

Parsing the policy

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A little over a month ago, the White House released a new national space policy, following in the tradition of administrations dating back for decades (see “A change in tone in national space policy”, The Space Review, July 6, 2010). Since then, many in the space field have been closely examining the policy (at least when not distracted by other issues, such as NASA legislation on Capitol Hill) looking for differences both obvious and subtle, and from that attempting to divine the administration’s real intentions and plans—a space policy form of Kremlinology, if you will.

The alternative to reading between the lines is to simply ask those who crafted the policy what they meant by what was included or excluded from the policy. Two opportunities for that took place late last month in forums organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Stimson Center, both in Washington. At these events officials and outside experts weighed in on language and intent of the nation’s new overarching space policy.

Words have meanings

One particularly active area of analysis and speculation about the policy is the use of specific words in the policy. That can seem like a bit of a stretch—just how significant can a word be?—but in the policy realm the use of a particular term can be important. “The Obama policy adds several new terms to the space policy lexicon,” Jeff Kueter, president of the Marshall Institute, noted in a white paper shortly after the policy’s release. “How those terms come to be interpreted and subsequently reflected in decisions about other policies and programs will be of considerable interest to U.S. departments and agencies, policy analysts, and foreign governments.”

“We think we have a good idea,” what responsible use of space is, said Marquez, “but if we’re going to lay out very early in the policy that space is the domain for all nations to use for peaceful purposes, this can’t be the US dictating what responsible use should be.”

One example that Kueter cited was “responsible behavior”. The policy makes multiple references to “responsible activity”, “responsible parties”, and “responsible operations”, among other variations. The policy also decries “irresponsible” acts and behavior that can consequences for all who wish to use to space. The irresponsible language appears to be a veiled reference to China’s 2007 ASAT test that littered low Earth orbit with thousands of pieces of debris, but what does responsible activity mean by comparison?

Peter Marquez, director of space policy on the National Security Council, said at the Stimson Center event that the administration “went around and around” on the use of the term “responsible” in the policy. In the end, he said, it will be up to the world community, and not the United States, to determine what exactly responsible space activities are. “We think we have a good idea, but if we’re going to lay out very early in the policy that space is the domain for all nations to use for peaceful purposes, this can’t be the US dictating what responsible use should be.”

Other officials noted that while the new policy has considerable continuity with past policies, there were issues with the tone and language with the past policy, enacted by the Bush Administration in 2006, that had to be addressed in the new one. The old policy, said an administration official at the CSIS event, had gotten criticism for what one observer had called a “comically proprietary tone” regarding the US in space. (The CSIS event was held under the Chatham House Rule, which allows use of the information but without attribution.) “Clearly, no one could accuse this policy of having that approach.”

Another definitional issue is the section of the policy dealing with commercial space activities. The new policy provides an explicit definition of the term: “space goods, services, or activities provided by private sector enterprises that bear a reasonable portion of the investment risk and responsibility for the activity, operate in accordance with typical market-based incentives for controlling cost and optimizing return on investment, and have the legal capacity to offer these goods or services to existing or potential nongovernmental customers.”

“That might seem a little odd because we all think we know what commercial means,” said an official on the CSIS panel. “Truthfully, we could probably debate for an hour about what exactly is meant by commercial.”

Even that definition, though, is open to interpretation. For example, the phrase “reasonable portion of the investment risk and responsibility” suggested to some that the administration was endorsing some degree of government investment or other subsidy of commercial space activities. That seemed a logical conclusion, since several months earlier the NASA budget proposal released by the administration included a plan to spend $6 billion over the next five years on development of commercial crew capabilities.

That’s not the case, though, the official said. “You shouldn’t read that to mean that we are somehow more friendly to subsidies now. As a matter of law and long-standing policy, there’s been no change.”

International cooperation and arms control

One key element of the policy is a greater emphasis on international cooperation, a recognition of the growing capabilities of other nations in space. One of the goals stated in the policy is to “expand international cooperation on mutually beneficial space activities”, while another section of the policy calls for departments and agencies to identify potential areas of cooperation, from space science to space situational awareness to navigation.

“We are very, very forward-leaning on international cooperation in this policy,” Marquez said at the Stimson event. “International cooperation is not just contained in the portion of the policy that says ‘international cooperation’. It is woven throughout the entire policy.”

That’s reflected in the structure of the policy itself, including a two-page “chapeau”, or preface, introducing it, a feature new to this policy. Its purpose is to help explain the policy’s purpose to a broader, and also more international, audience. “This policy is probably the most outwardly-focused from a messaging standpoint than previous policies,” said an official at the CSIS event.

“We’re going to have to leverage our international partners as well as our commercial partners far more intelligently in order to do more with less,” Sheldon said.

Some, though, have raised concerns that the policy’s emphasis on cooperation could blur the line between international cooperation and undue reliance on international partners. The policy includes a provision to “augment U.S. capabilities by leveraging existing and planned space capabilities of allies and space partners.” Taken to its extreme, one person asked at the CSIS event, could the US, say, curtail its investment in its GPS system and instead rely more upon Europe’s Galileo system in the years to come?

Officials demurred, saying that other systems would be used to augment the GPS system, but that the US would remain committed to operating its own system that did not rely on international partners. “I don’t think we’re ever going to make ourselves dependent on it; GPS is too important to us,” one said of Galileo. “There’s no point in trying to stop it. Should we not use it to augment our capabilities?”

The greater role of international cooperation, though, could be a recognition of what John Sheldon, a professor at the Air War College, called the “800-pound gorilla in the room” that few wished to address directly: financial constraints that the US will likely face in the years to come. “The idea that somehow we can carry on doing what we’ve been doing they way we’ve been doing it is going to come to a rapid end,” he warned. “We’re going to have to leverage our international partners as well as our commercial partners far more intelligently in order to do more with less.”

Coupled with the greater emphasis on international cooperation is the perception that the new policy is more open to space arms control, such as treaties that would prohibit the use of weapons in space. The new policy restores language found in the Clinton Administration’s policy that the US “will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.”

However, insiders and outsiders alike said that despite the policy language, the US was unlikely to rush into any sort of treaty. One official on the CSIS panel said there would be more of a push for so-called “transparency and confidence building measures”, but on a bilateral or multilateral basis rather than as a broad international treaty.

If efforts are made on some kind of agreement, be it a treaty or a “code of conduct” for space operations, the venue for hashing it out might not be a conventional forum like the Conference on Disarmament but instead a smaller, more streamlined forum primarily consisting of major spacefaring countries, such as the G20. Bruce MacDonald of US Institute for Peace noted at the Stimson event that while treaties have the advantage of having the force of law, a lesser agreement might be more achievable. “It’s almost like you say the word ‘treaty’ and people flinch,” he said.

Policy development and implementation

Despite all the discussion of the content and meaning of the new national space policy, its formulation was remarkably quick and smooth. “I had an incredibly easy job” coordinating the interagency process that developed the policy, Marquez said. “It was a very good, very collaborative process. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t have gotten this done in six months.”

An official admitted there are differences between the White House and Congress on NASA, but emphasized a willingness to work together. “The goal is a program that is both ambitious and, ultimately, achievable.”

Officials explained that the administration moved swiftly to develop a new space policy not because it wanted to put its own stamp on the subject or distance itself from the Bush Administration’s policy, but because the space policy landscape had changed significantly since the release of the Bush policy in 2006. Examples of those changes included the Chinese ASAT test and overall growing debris population, as well as the changing capabilities of the commercial sector.

The next major space policy milestone is the release of the Space Posture Review by the Defense Department. That policy has been planned for release early this year but was delayed; at the National Space Symposium in Colorado in April Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III predicted it would be completed this summer. An official said at the CSIS event that with the release of the national space policy, the DOD was now working with the Director of National Intelligence to complete a “National Security Space Strategy”, the final component of the overall Space Posture Review.

While it’s one thing to develop a policy, it’s quite another to try and implement it. Some of that work will be out of the hands of the administration and instead in the hands of Congress, one official noted. “At the top level all of these policies are always subject to appropriations and authorization legislation. That’s a central truth that you live with when you do policies.”

Part of that policy is already being modified by Congress as it develops NASA authorization legislation intended to be something of a compromise between the administration’s budget proposal and the agency’s existing Constellation program. An official admitted there are differences, but emphasized a willingness to work with Congress to come to a mutually agreeable solution. “The goal is a program that is both ambitious and, ultimately, achievable.”

Overall, Marquez was pleased with what came out of the process that created the policy. “I have a very biased opinion,” he said, “but I think we put out a pretty good product.”