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Obama at KSC
While President Obama made major changes earlier this year to NASA’s human spaceflight programs, his administration’s national space policy reflects as much a change in tone as in substance. (credit: B. Ingalls/NASA)

A change in tone in national space policy

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Last week the White House released, with a modest amount of fanfare, its version of the National Space Policy. The document, 14 pages long (18 counting the cover and other front matter) provides the Obama Administration’s stamp on various civil, commercial, and national security policy issues, just as the Bush Administration, Clinton Administration, and its predecessors have done over the years.

While the administration’s significant changes to NASA’s human spaceflight plans, announced earlier this year, might lead one to suspect that overall national space policy could be similarly subject to major changes, in reality national space policies do not undergo such major shifts from administration to administration. That’s the case here, where much of the language in the Obama Administration space policy can also be found in the Bush Administration’s policy released in 2006 and/or previous editions. What’s more useful is to look for changes around the edges, so to speak: subtle shifts in language and emphasis that can provide insights into how the current administration will redirect and reprioritize space activities. And there are several such shifts that can be found in the policy.

A “less bellicose” policy

One clear change in the policy was a shift in language in portions of the policy. Instead of placing a US-first emphasis in some sections of the policy, as the Bush Administration’s 2006 policy had done, the Obama Administration policy returns to language used in the Clinton-era and earlier policies.

“I think the biggest difference between the Bush policy and the Clinton policy was the tone of it, and I think the biggest difference between the Obama policy and the Bush policy is the tone, the tenor,” said Smith.

For example, the Bush policy stated: “The United States considers space systems to have the rights of passage through and operations in space without interference. Consistent with this principle, the United States will view purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights.” Contrast that with the new policy: “The United States considers the space systems of all nations to have the rights of passage through, and conduct of operations in, space without interference. Purposeful interference with space systems, including supporting infrastructure, will be considered an infringement of a nation’s rights.” The Bush policy spoke only of interference with US space systems, while the Obama policy refers to interference with any nation’s space systems.

Then there’s this passage from the Bush policy:

The United States considers space capabilities -- including the ground and space segments and supporting links -- vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests;

The comparable section of the Obama policy is far less US-centric:

The United States will employ a variety of measures to help assure the use of space for all responsible parties, and, consistent with the inherent right of self-defense, deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allied space systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them.

Many saw that shift in language as a major, deliberate change in emphasis in the policy. “I think the biggest difference between the Bush policy and the Clinton policy was the tone of it, and I think the biggest difference between the Obama policy and the Bush policy is the tone, the tenor,” said Marcia Smith, founder and editor of, during a panel session last Thursday in Washington organized by the Arms Control Association and the Secure World Foundation. “And, of course, it’s perception that is so important, especially when you’re dealing with our allies and other potential partners around the world.”

Ben Baseley-Walker, legal and policy advisor for the Secure World Foundation, also remarked on the tone of the policy, including the “deter, defend, defeat” section excerpted above. “I think these [words] really show a much less bellicose tone than the Bush policy,” he said during Thursday’s panel. “It’s very much about how we are a player in the international community” but one willing to defend our interests if so necessary.

That shift in tone is not surprising given the policy’s emphasis on international cooperation. The Bush policy devoted just a couple of paragraphs to international cooperation, supporting such cooperation in areas like space exploration and Earth observation systems, but offering few specifics. The Obama policy, by comparison, devotes close to a page to the topic, broadening the scope of potential areas of cooperation to include such topics as navigation, space nuclear power, and space situational awareness. The policy also emphasizes demonstrating US leadership in many of those areas, such as “the enhancement of security, stability, and responsible behavior in space”.

“I’d say if there’s one really broad theme, it is international cooperation, which is woven throughout the new policy,” said Barry Pavel, senior director for defense policy and strategy with the National Security Council, during a conference call on the new policy last week. “And it’s our sort of foundational emphasis for achieving all of our goals in space.”

Space arms control: much ado about nothing?

One aspect of that enhanced international cooperation is an apparent willingness to consider space-related arms control accords, something the previous administration showed little interest in. “The United States 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,” the policy states.

“One of the biggest departures is, I would say, the arms control language,” a senior administration official, speaking on background, said in a State Department conference call about the policy. “In the 2006 policy, it basically said that the United States would not accept any type of legal limitations on the US freedom of action in space.”

Despite language in the policy cautiously endorsing such treaties, “I think it’s probably unlikely you will see the United States drop a draft space arms control agreement,” a senior administration official said.

While that language was not found in the Bush Administration policy, it is virtually identical to what was in the Clinton Administration policy of 1996: “The United States will consider and, as appropriate, formulate positions on arms control and related measures governing activities in space, and will conclude agreements on such measures only if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the security of the United States and our allies.” Even the Bush policy did not have an absolute prohibition against such arms control agreements: “Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.”

Despite the new (or at least recycled) language in the Obama policy, administration officials made it clear it didn’t mean they would immediately seek major agreements in this area, such as a treaty banning weapons in space. “I think it’s probably unlikely you will see the United States drop a draft space arms control agreement,” the senior administration official said. “I think where you will see us focused in the near term will be on pragmatic transparency in confidence building measures.” The official added the administration remained opposed to a proposed treaty introduced by Russia and China in 2008 to ban the placement of weapons in outer space, saying that it was “unverifiable”, thus violating the “effectively verifiable” criterion of the policy.

Others agreed that despite the language of the policy, it’s unlikely an overarching space arms control accord will be developed in the foreseeable future. “I think arms control in space is completely the wrong approach to take,” Baseley-Walker said during Thursday’s panel. “This isn’t a numbers game. This isn’t Cold War nuclear weapons, where you have this many and we have this many.”

“The international community right now is not ready for a big new space treaty, certainly not one built around security,” he added. “There are no countries, including Europe, where the understanding for space across departments, across actors, is as high as it is in the United States.”

Bruce MacDonald, senior director of the Nonproliferation and Arms Control Project at the United States Institute of Peace, said he saw space arms control “rehabilitated” in the new policy, but agreed that didn’t mean the administration would, or should, immediately propose new treaties. Instead, he suggested starting with more informal agreements, like codes of conduct and “rules of the road”, that can be easier to win support for and approval of than a full-fledged treaty. “I’d much rather do that than hold out for something a lot better,” he said.

The meaning of commercial space

Another area of renewed emphasis in the policy was on the commercial sector. “Energize competitive domestic industries” is the first of six overall goals in the new policy, and nearly a page and a half of the policy is devoted to commercial space guidelines ranging from the government use of commercial capabilities to the development of prize competitions to “cultivate increased technological innovation and entrepreneurship in the commercial space sector.”

Most notable about the policy, perhaps, is its definition of commercial:

The term “commercial,” for the purposes of this policy, refers to 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.

The Bush Administration policy did not have an explicit definition of commercial space in its policy. The Clinton policy, though, did: “A space good or service is ‘commercially available’ if it is currently offered commercially, or if it could be supplied commercially in response to a government service procurement request.” The new definition is also different from what the George H.W. Bush Administration considered commercial in its guidelines for commercial space activities laid out in NSPD-3, a document separate from its overall national space policy (see “Twin hurdles for commercial human spaceflight”, The Space Review, May 24, 2010.)

“I think the Obama policy lays out at least what the White House thinks commercial space is, and the appropriate role of the government in facilitating the emergence of commercial space,” said Smith. “You can agree or disagree with it, but at least it’s there.”

The biggest difference is that the new policy allows, at least implicitly, for some degree of government investment in commercial space ventures through the “reasonable portion of the investment risk” clause. By comparison, the Clinton policy prohibits “the use of direct Federal subsidies”. The new policy is, at least, in line with current efforts like NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, where NASA is helping fund the development of new launch vehicles and spacecraft to transport cargo to the ISS, systems that would also be available to commercial and other non-NASA customers.

“One of the troubles that people are having with commercial space policy is the wording, and what it commercial. Everybody keeps searching for what commercial means,” Smith said. “I think the Obama policy lays out at least what the White House thinks commercial space is, and the appropriate role of the government in facilitating the emergence of commercial space. You can agree or disagree with it, but at least it’s there.”

One surprising aspect of the policy, as it relates to commercial issues, is the lack of details on export control policy. The administration has made a major push in recent months to seek export control reform, which could potentially make it easier for US companies to compete on the global market. Yet there is only a passing reference to that reform effort in the policy, and one key provision—“space-related items that are determined to be generally available in the global marketplace shall be considered favorably”—is effectively identical to the Bush policy.

White House officials said that the policy is not the final word on space-related export control reform efforts. “What this national space policy reflects is the current state of play, not the new export policy yet,” said Peter Marquez, NSC director of space policy, in last week’s conference call. “When that export policy gets announced, it will supersede the portions of this space policy dealing with export control.”

Responsibility and implementation

One other major change in the policy is more thematic: the multiple references to “responsibility” by all spacefaring countries, not just the United States. “All nations have the right to use and explore space, but with this right also comes responsibility,” reads the policy’s introduction. “The United States, therefore, calls on all nations to work together to adopt approaches for responsible activity in space to preserve this right for the benefit of future generations.”

Responsibility comes up often when dealing with the issue of orbital debris and “sustainability” of space. “The now-ubiquitous and interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on them mean that irresponsible acts in space can have damaging consequences for all of us,” the policy states, perhaps in a subtle dig at the Chinese ASAT test in 2007 that generated thousands of debris objects. “For example, decades of space activity have littered Earth’s orbit with debris; and as the world’s space-faring nations continue to increase activities in space, the chance for a collision increases correspondingly.”

“The now-ubiquitous and interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on them mean that irresponsible acts in space can have damaging consequences for all of us,” the policy states.

As interesting as that language may be, though, it’s meaningless unless it’s backed up with some action. The Bush policy came with only about two years left in the administration, and thus was more of a reflection of what the administration did, or had wanted to do, rather than what it would do going forward. The Obama policy comes less than 18 months into Obama’s presidency, giving the administration up to six and a half years (depending on the outcome of the 2012 elections) to implement. (The Bush policy did come after the release of several policies on space issues such as navigation, commercial remote sensing, and transportation; White House officials said such specific policies would come down the road.)

“If you look back at the historical record, this is a pretty early front-end strategy for our broad national space policy activities,” said Pavel. Indeed, in recent administrations only the George H.W. Bush Administration, which released its national space policy in November 1989, 10 months after taking office, was faster.

That “front-end strategy” means that people will be watching to see what the White House does—or does not do—to implement the policy, which in the long run is what really matters. “In a sense they are just words written on paper,” Smith said of such policies. “What’s really important about a policy is what happens after it comes out.”