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Orion and Altair illustration
If this illustration is to become reality, the United States may first need to rethink how it implements space policy. (credit: NASA)

Is the US serious about space policy?

Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, and now in the early weeks of Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House, many have wondered what sort of space policy the new administration would support. During the campaign that meant, with a few exceptions (notably the space policy documents released by Obama and his Republican challenger, John McCain) looking for any reference to space, however offhand, made by candidates in speeches and debates. Now, without a nominee yet for NASA administrator, that means scouring the administration’s budget outlines for NASA for fiscal year 2010—all two pages of it—and divining broader policy goals from it, like continued support for retiring the shuttle next year and continuing with plans to return humans to the Moon.

However, is this focus on policy itself misplaced? After all, while policy defines the general framework of the US’s activities in space—civil, commercial, and military—it still has to be implemented by all the various stakeholders, from the White House and Congress to NASA and the Defense Department. And that is where the US falls short, a panel of experts argued during a roundtable discussion titled “Challenges for Space Policy in 2009” organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington last week. (The event took place under the Chatham House Rule, so that none of the discussion can be attributed to any speaker.) Without a greater focus on coordinating and implementing policy, some warned, the US may be at risk of eventually losing its current position as the world’s leading spacefaring power.

“Policy is not self-actualizing”

There is no shortage of space policies promulgated by various administrations over the last half-century. Some developed quite quickly, as President Kennedy decided to make a manned lunar landing the goal of NASA and the nation in a matter of weeks; others, like Nixon’s decision to support development of the Space Shuttle as the agency’s post-Apollo future, took much longer. There are also the policies that utterly failed, like the Space Exploration Initiative, and the uncertain future of the Vision for Space Exploration.

“We’re horrible at implementing policy, absolutely horrible,” one speaker said. “We’ve got to figure out why we’re horrible.”

“There have been too many starts and stops,” said one of the speakers, referring to the various policies promulgated over the years and their effects on the space industry. He called for government to settle on a policy and stick with implementing it, something that has been a struggle in the past.

“We’re horrible at implementing policy, absolutely horrible. We’ve got to figure out why we’re horrible,” he said, suggesting the formation of a “special commission” or task force to study why it’s been so difficult for governments to carry out policy. Otherwise, he warned, “we’re going to go down the same path with this policy or a new policy, and nothing is going to be accomplished.”

“The problem is not that we have insufficient space policy or a bad space policy,” said another panelist. “But as we now understand, policy is not self-actualizing. We need to have some other mechanisms that take very sound policy and turn them into action and results.”

He noted that, over the years, there have been any number of policy recommendations on issues ranging from acquisition reform to human capital issues. “Regrettably, many of these recommendations simply have not been implemented, or those that have been implemented have actually been reversed,” he said. “We are actually in a worse position today than we were 10 to 15 years ago.”

Another issue, one speaker noted, was a “fragmentation” of authority among various agencies on space-related issues, particularly in the national security space field, to the point that it was difficult to determine who had the “responsibility, authority, and accountability” on key issues and programs. That is why, he said, some recent studies and commissions have called for major realignments of how national security space programs are run, with a consolidation of authority under a single management structure.

A panelist noted that the government can also take a “schizophrenic” approach to implementing policy. For example, the national commercial remote sensing policy calls on the government to use commercial imagery where available to meet its needs, yet last year the government proposed building its own spacecraft under the Broad Area Space-Based Imagery Collector (BASIC) program to provide the same type of imagery already available from commercial companies. Similarly, NASA has strongly supported the commercial development of systems that can ferry cargo to the International Space Station, but shows no interest in similar systems for crew transportation.

All this suggested to one of the speakers that, in general, the country doesn’t care that much about space. “The bottom line is that the country really isn’t serious about getting a good space program,” he said, because otherwise you would see greater attention to space issues within government, and particularly within the White House. The result, he said, is “a good enough program, but not a good program.”

Do we need a National Space Council?

Given that relative downbeat assessment of space policy, what can the Obama Administration do to improve matters—or, at least, not make them any worse? Some panelists warned of “significant consequences” to space programs caused by the current financial crisis and its effect on the federal budget. “We live in a current environment that will force us to do things differently,” one speaker said. He warned of a “temptation” to refine program requirements in light of budget pressures to make new programs “all things to all people”, an approach that could be doomed to failure. “If you’re all things to everybody you may wind up being nothing to anybody.”

“The bottom line is that the country really isn’t serious about getting a good space program,” according to one panelist. The result is “a good enough program, but not a good program.”

In the near term those budget pressures are absent at NASA, which got a significant increase in the president’s 2010 budget proposal to $18.7 billion. However, as one panelist noted, that budget document, the closest thing to date to a policy document on space issued by the new administration, leaves unanswered any number of issues, from how that top-line number will be allocated among the various programs to the future of programs like Ares and Orion (which are not explicitly mentioned in the budget document) to the long-term future of the ISS.

Some expressed the need for overarching strategies or philosophies that explain how policies should be implemented. “We need to have an accepted, authoritative, and instructive national space strategy,” one person said, that would describe how the various tools, from people to programs, should be used to implement national space policies. Another suggested that policy should be based on a “philosophy of space” where government spending is focused on “safety, science, and security” purposes.

It would seem, then, that the proposal to re-establish the National Space Council, proposed by Obama during the campaign and reiterated last month by John Holdren during his Senate confirmation hearing to become the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), would be welcome news to the panelists, given how the council has been billed as a way of coordinating space policy at the White House level among the various executive branch stakeholders. However, the idea got a lukewarm reception when it was brought up for discussion.

“The key is having someone responsible for space within the president’s inner circle who has authority over some very recalcitrant organizations,” one panelist said. That, he added, implies that this person needs to come out of the national security community since those are, in his view, the more difficult organizations to deal with.

Some suggested that, rather than a standalone National Space Council, there should be something established with the National Security Council (NSC) with authority over space issues. One scenario discussed called for the creation of a senior director for space within the NSC who would be “someone of authority within the community who is respected” supported by a small staff—four or five people—with expertise in civil, commercial, and national security space issues.

Placing this within the NSC, panelists said, was far more preferable than doing it within OSTP, which would consign it to only science and technology issues. Moreover, OSTP “is fundamentally not on the decision chain”, unlike the NSC, one person noted.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that, of all the alternatives, a separate, dedicated space council is probably the least desirable,” one speaker said.

Some suggested that, rather than a standalone National Space Council, there should be something established with the National Security Council with authority over space issues.

Whatever approach is taken, the panelists made it clear that the government needs to pay more attention to space issues now to avoid even greater problems down the road. “We need to elevate the dialogue so that we’re not simply talking amongst ourselves, but rather trying to make the case more publicly that space is a strategically important sector,” one panelist concluded. If the space community fails in this effort, he warns, within 30 years the US might be just one a number of relatively equal space powers, rather than the dominant space power it is today.

“As a nation, are we still serious about space at the political level?” one person asked, suggesting that we are not. “Maybe this administration will be different; I hope so.”


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