The New National Space Policy

Posted: July 23, 2010 in Uncategorized

Note: this article originally ran in Air University’s The Wright Stuff

The New National Space Policy

By Mark Stout

An adage regarding Hollywood scripts (which seems to hold true for performance appraisals as well) is that they’re never really written they’re only…rewritten. Similarly, there’s also the proofreader’s axiom which asserts ‘editing normally makes the document better.’  Both of these truisms can also apply to policy, and in the specific case before us–the “new” National Space Policy dated June 28th, 2010–they do.

Although one newspaper published the breathless headline Obama Reverses Bush’s Space Policy, the reality is the 2010 space policy holds fast and true to long-established space principles and goals.  A definitive summary work examining the new National Space Policy alongside its 2006 predecessor comes from Jeff Kueter writing at the Marshall Institute who ably deconstructs both the 2010 and 2006 policies.

The major area of concern Kueter identifies in the 2010 policy is the fact it introduces–but fails to define–three important new terms.  The three new terms as they relate to space include “sustainability,” “responsible behavior,” and “stability.”  Exactly what these terms are intended to convey and the actions (or constraints) that might be associated with them has yet to clearly emerge.  Sometimes, it seems, boilerplate is beneficial as there is plenty of policy goodness in using existing, accepted, and well-understood language.

However, the most significant difference between the 2010 policy and the 2006 policy is the tone of the new document.  The 2010 policy uses a much more multilateral, non-confrontational, and cooperative tone.  How about a Food Network metaphor here?  While the 2010 and the 2006 space policies are both clearly chock-full of delicious space goodness, the 2010 version has been plated more delicately and is being served in a more endearing manner.

The 2006 policy had an unnecessarily bold ‘out-of-family’ tone that was disconnected from earlier space policies.  Perhaps the major frequent critique of the 2006 space policy regarded its tone, which many space policy readers resented for its perceived unilateral and uncompromising U.S. space approach.  Much conventional wisdom holds that the tone of the 2006 space policy was not useful in furthering overall U.S. interests, just as your mother may have mentioned you’ll catch more flies with sugar than with monomethyl hydrazine.  As such, the 2010 policy is certain to draw additional space flies with its sweeter language.

While some variation in tone might be expected between policy iterations, the intellectual foundation and enduring U.S. space policy principles dating from the Eisenhower administration remain in the new policy.  As in previous versions of policy, these concepts–similar in a number of ways to operations in international waters–have either been “baked in” to policy language, or more commonly, are explicitly described.  These principles have been called-out in historian Cargill Hall’s taxonomy as follows:

  • The call for free access to space and unimpeded passage through space for all nations
  • An endorsement for the exploration and use of space for peaceful purposes and the benefit of all mankind
  • The rejection of any claims of sovereignty over space or celestial bodies along as well as the rejection of limits on acquiring data from space
  • The establishment of three separate but interrelated government space programs: civil, military, and intelligence
  • The recognition that space systems must be allowed interference-free passage and operations
  • The right, if necessary, to conduct space self-defense activities

Although these enduring principles…endure, of particular joy for the arms-control industry is the 2010 space policy’s explicit non-dismissal of arms control as a possible method of securing U.S. interests in space.  While the 2006 policy curtly waived away “the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space,” that language may have minimized, but certainly didn’t eliminate space-focused arms control.  Still, such language does recall the issue of tone, which is hard to dismiss.  The 2006 policy’s intent could have been more artfully phrased, perhaps as broadly prosaic as “The U.S. will consider legal regimes which do not interfere with U.S. goals regarding space.”

This sort of gentler arms-control tone is the exact approach the 2010 policy takes.  The new policy now says the U.S. will consider space-focused arms control proposals “if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the security of the United States and its allies.”  So while it’s almost certain no meaningful space-focused arms control treaty will emerge in the next several years, the new policy’s language is more palatable to many in the space community.  Ultimately though, when the arms control scatologists have dug through reality and reconciled that with the 2010 policy, they will find no ‘space arms control pony’ exists.

So is the new space policy of little or no value?  By no means: although it introduces some undefined ideas, the 2010 version beneficially uses a more conciliatory tone and sustains all the must-have principles of space that have made the United States the world’s greatest space-faring nation.  Still, space policy as a defining tool to achieve goals, principles, and funding decisions has been of been of little value and without a means of execution, policy itself does nothing but sit there.

Similarly, the 2006 policy’s saying-doing disconnect between what the U.S. said it would do and what we actually could do (or would do) was an obvious shortfall.  This reality had–and has–to do with political will and resources.  And speaking of resources, they are why much of the battle-rhythm at the Pentagon regards the development, submission, and defense of military programming and budgets.  It’s also why Congress works funding issues intently, and it’s why congressional members and staffers associated with appropriations committees and subcommittees normally have the adjective “powerful” somewhere near their titles, names, and organizations.

While some may tell you their goals are stated in their policy declarations, it’s much easier to tell what the real priorities are based on what actually gets done.  Although policy is…interesting, funded space programs–what gets done–is what really matters.  With the 2010 space policy, to paraphrase Pete Townsend, it’s still pretty much ‘meet the new wonk/same as the old wonk.’

Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at Air University’s National Space Studies Center and sometimes posts at the blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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