The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Space Council meeting
A US National Space Council meeting in December 2021. While the processes countries follow to develop space policy differ, they follow a similar series of steps. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Space policy: why a step-by-step plan matters

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We want to go to space! Escape Earth’s gravity, get to orbit, and then travel to cislunar space, establish a presence on the Moon, and utilize the Moon as our eighth continent before we venture out into our solar system. It appears as a dark void, and yet the unknown does call to us. Earth itself is a spaceship, which for now, is the only habitable planet in our solar system. We may discover Earth-like planets that might sustain life in other solar systems, but even if we do, we might not be able to ever know or visit them given the enormous distances.

Policy in democratic settings require elite consensus, societal cohesion, and support and leadership to push it forward.

Despite knowing full well the reality of such vast distances, the imagination of space and what it holds has ignited human civilization with a mysterious longing, and a spiritual realization that we are, after all, a part of what we call the universe. In some sense, we are connected to that universal core. This has led to missions of stargazing, exploration, scientific discovery, and a movement to become interplanetary. Until now, human civilization has been able to get to the Moon, but travel beyond that has not come easy, and we have been confined to sending robotic missions to distant planets.

All these space ambitions, aspirations, and goals have been conceived by different nations and their societies for divergent reasons: sometimes geopolitics, other times for showing off technology, and now the potential to utilize the resources of the Moon, Mars, and asteroids for human space development. Space education has become an important component of the sciences and the arts, from the physical and life sciences to the social sciences; the understanding of human behavior and motivations, the passions and the deeper need to expand ourselves and our descendants into the universe beyond Earth. There are those who argue for an expansionist vision, including myself, and then there are those who argue for an Earth-confined human civilization given the potential for planetary degradation that the human species is accused of. I argue that human civilization is capable of progress and that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Into this grand meta-narrative enters the idea of space policy and what it involves. The Cambridge dictionary defines policy as “a set of ideas or a plan of what to do in particular situations that has been agreed to officially by a group of people, a business organization, a government, or a political party.” Public policy can be generally defined “as a system of laws, regulatory measures, courses of action, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promulgated by a governmental entity or its representatives.” In this, we can have policy advocacy groups, educational institutions, public intellectuals, and competing interest groups and institutions that might aim to shape the policy process to their interest.

I define space policy as a process of developing, prioritizing, and implementing a plan of action developed by the government entity entrusted with the task. In the US the National Space Council (NSpC) coordinates the development of the national space policy in consultation with different government departments. Simply put, this is an interagency process, which means that different departments might have their own set of priorities in regard to a national level space policy. In China, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) writes the space policies and produces the White Papers on Space Activities, but the policy process involves other institutions like the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences (AMS), amongst others. A similar process is followed in India with the Department of Space (DoS) that is located within the Prime Minister’s office setting the policy, with new institutions like the New Space India Limited (NSIL) inaugurated in 2019 to bring in the voices of the commercial sector.

So, how does the space policy process actually work? The first stage is problem identification, the second stage is policy formulation, the third stage is policy adoption, the fourth stage is policy implementation, and, finally, policy evaluation. Let us now define these stages and illustrate it through examples.

Policy in democratic settings require elite consensus, societal cohesion, and support and leadership to push it forward. The first stage in the policy process is identification of a problem, be it organizationally, or a technology that is required to be built to forward a particular policy goal. Sometimes even if an organization already exists, for example like NASA, it might not be optimized to do some of the tasks set by a space policy directive, or have the organizational flexibility to adapt quickly to certain key strategic goals, like deterrence and protection of US space assets in LEO or GEO. Or NASA might not be optimized to invest in space resource extraction and development, being focused since the end of the Cold War on space science and space exploration missions. Even to use policy words like space development which changes the narrative from space exploration can be a difficult process to adapt to.

Given that, a space policy process can identify that as a problem and call for new organizational structures like the US did in terms of developing a NSpC whose mandate is far larger and broader than NASA, and to develop a dedicated military service for space deterrence like the US Space Force (USSF) in 2019. China initiated a space policy process through their White Papers and developed their own PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) in 2015 to address issues like joint warfare training and capability. India identified the absence of a supportive space ecosystem for the development of its commercial space sector and consequently developed new institutions like the NSIL and the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center to help coordinate, legislate, and develop the regulatory and institutional structures to resolve the problem of absence of such supportive structures.

Policy priorities are set and missions can be either enhanced or diluted depending on which agency will play to its own strengths to ensure that space policy missions are within their own range of expertise and capabilities.

The second stage in the space policy process is policy formulation. This is the stage where once a problem area has been identified, states then formulate specific policies to address these issues. For China, the formulation of policy to develop reusable rockets and cislunar space capabilities is addressed in its 2021 White Paper on Space Activities. For the US, developing capabilities for space exploration and space science including the Moon is formulated in its 2020 National Space Policy, its 2021 Space Priorities Framework and its cislunar strategy. The United Arab Emirates has issued a national space policy that is focused on developing its national space program with a priority on enhancing UAE internal space capabilities, international collaboration as a member of the US-led Artemis Accords, and through signing Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with countries like Luxembourg to participate in the future of space resources extraction that Luxembourg is focused on.

The third stage of the space policy process is policy adoption. In this stage, countries that have formulated a space policy goes about adopting the policy. In the US this is through Congressional approval, while in China it is through State Council policy adoption. In India there is a parliamentary debate and budgetary approval while the UAE needs only support from its own regime. This step is crucial as it is during the adoption stage that an interagency process is key. Policy priorities are set and missions can be either enhanced or diluted depending on which agency will play to its own strengths to ensure that space policy missions are within their own range of expertise and capabilities.

One could see this process play out during the US policy adoption of the Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs where some insiders within NASA were allegedly resistant to the idea given the fear that the commercial sector may take over some of the missions NASA felt entitled to carry out, including developing a reusable rocket and transporting supplies to the International Space Stations. Even today in the US where there is a policy adoption of public-private partnership for space missions, there is a mindset that the commercial space industry has adopted where systems they build have to be justified within the NASA’s overall plans, like Artemis for lunar landers and other infrastructure. US space regulations, like the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) is very restrictive when it comes to US commercial space sector’s ability to collaborate internationally in the global space industry.

In China, at the policy adoption stage, an institution like State Administration on Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), which functions under the direction of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), plays an important role. According to its website, SASTIND is responsible for

nuclear weapon, aerospace technology, aviation, armament, watercraft and electronic industries. It is established to strengthen military forces with additional personnel and more advanced equipment. Ensuring material supplies for the army is its top priority. Furthermore, it intends to contribute to the prosperity of the whole country by stimulating the manufacturing industry, gaining competitive edges through with superior production techniques. As the administrative and regulatory agency of science, technology and industry for national defense, SASTIND serves the needs of national defense, military forces, national economy, and military-related organizations. Meanwhile, it is also responsible for the coordination of communications and cooperation on the use of nuclear power and space activities with countries and international organizations.

Under SASTIND is the China National Space Administration (CNSA), founded in 1993, and the other state-funded space institutions like CAST, CALT, and CASC. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plays a critical role in developing and adopting China’s space program including its human spaceflight program. China’s policy adoption of developing its commercial space sector through its document 60 titled Guiding Opinions of the State Council on Innovating the Investment and Financing Mechanisms in Key Areas and Encouraging Social Investment issued by the State Council in 2014, which went through a process of ensuring that these private space sectors were made keenly aware that they worked within the guidance of that document as well as the 2021 National Defense Law.

In all of this, a grand strategic vision for why a state and society invests in space capability and why that matters must be clearly identified at the beginning stages even before problem identification.

Japan adopted a new Space Policy Framework in 2008 that focused on space development and utilization, gave priority to establishing space legislations that supported such a process, and focused on developing Japanese citizens’ capabilities and skillset to benefit from the space commercial sector. African nations developed a Statute for the development of the space sector through the African Union and called for the establishment of an African Space Agency to ensure that African nations benefit from space to include from the commercial development of space.

The fourth stage in the space policy process is policy implementation. Once a policy is adopted, the policy must be implemented by institutions tasked with it. If US national security space policy calls for deterrence and security of US space assets in LEO and GEO, it will be the task of the USSF to implement such goals. When the US adopted a space policy goal of going back to the Moon and to develop sustainable presence there, it is the domain of NASA to ensure that those policy goals are met and that the policy is implemented. When Presidents George W. Bush Jr and Barack Obama called for the commercial development of space as a policy goal, it fell to both NASA and the commercial space industry to develop and implement those goals.

Implementation is the stage where budgets matter and how much is allocated for the actual building of missions, institutions, and end capacity. When the African Space Agency was established in Egypt and budgetary allocations were made by African nations to build it, that policy had passed the implementation stage. When India adopted a policy of supporting its commercial space sector including making its launch systems private, the establishment of institutions like NSIL, the allocation of budget to develop those capacities, and the offering of launch pads for the launch of India’s first commercial rocket are in the policy implementation stage. When Japan developed its own Space Domain Mission Unit in 2020 as part of national security space, and announced its space mining legislation in December 2021 to support the commercial extraction of space resources, these developments are within the policy implementation stage.

The final stage in the space policy process is policy evaluation. This is the stage where policies that have gone through the policy feedback loop are now in the final stage where we can evaluate how successful or ineffective these policies were towards the goal of space exploration and development. For instance, it is at the policy evaluation stage that efforts like the Artemis Accords for lunar development can be assessed for effectiveness in terms of how many international partnerships is it able to procure, which nations have joined, and what actual space capacity they bring to the program. The US needs a policy evaluation for whether the establishment of the USSF has actually made the US more secure in space, and what is the kind of culture, education, tactical and strategic mindsets and training, space officers are being exposed to, to make them successful guardians of space for the future.

India’s policy evaluation stage could include an assessment of why India has abstained on voting on UN General Assembly resolution 75/36 that aims to reduce space threats and ensure responsible behavior in space, or why the Indian NewSpace economy is slow in taking off. What more can India accomplish in terms of government support, be it financial or regulatory, that turns India into an attractive destination for the development of commercial space?

Strategic ambiguity at the policy evaluation stage is not helpful. Policy evaluation must be based on both qualitative and quantitative analyses, to include financial assessments of which policy has succeeded in accomplishing its goals, within budget and on time, and if not, then an objective explanation on why that is the case.

Political and strategic culture matters in the end of how the space policy process unfolds.

In all of this, a grand strategic vision for why a state and society invests in space capability and why that matters must be clearly identified at the beginning stages even before problem identification. How grand strategic perspectives are adopted is, of course, determined and influenced by strategic culture and political culture of a particular state and society. For instance, driven by China’s Comprehensive National Power, a concept inspired by Deng Xiaoping and now adopted by President Xi Jinping within his “national rejuvenation” framework, China has pushed for a particular set of problem identification, followed by the entire policy cycle of which institutions formulate, adopt, implement and evaluate that policy. Failures are discussed within a tight-knit closed group without an external audit. Similarly, India has not issued a written official explanation of what happened with its Chandrayaan 2 mission, based on a scientific audit, including why it failed in the last few seconds to land on the lunar surface, and what policy needs to be adopted to ensure that does not happen again in the future.

That is why I say that political and strategic culture matters in the end of how the space policy process unfolds. Moreover, it can be messy in the real world and complicate the conceptual compartmentalization I identify here in this article. Nevertheless, it is a useful mental model to keep reminding us that a clear policy plan is always useful to keep us on the path, since we as humans tend to deviate so often from what we set ourselves to accomplish, including in our own lives. States and societies are, after all, a representation of humans working together and/or competing on a grand scale, and they will reproduce many of the behaviors we see at the individual level, only with much greater complexity and with far more resources to solve or exacerbate the problems of the day. Vision and purpose of a space program is therefore the critical guiding light.

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