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Atlas 5 launch
Many recent space events, like the surge in national security launch activity, including this Atlas 5 launch of an NRO payload earlier this year, took place independent of the new national space policy. (credit: ULA)

The national space policy, one year later

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The space community often treats the release of new policies as major milestones, the end of a long process largely conducted behind closed doors. A prime example was the release of the Obama Administration’s national space policy, one year ago this week. Immediately after its release, industry, media, and other observers closely examined both the language and tone of the policy, looking for what had changed and what had remained the same, congratulating the administration for its insights or lamenting the policy’s oversights (see “A change in tone in national space policy”, The Space Review, July 6, 2010).

However, the release of a policy, while the end of one, largely private process, is more importantly the beginning of a much more public process: its implementation. Like the reports of countless blue-ribbon committees over the years that provided recommendations on the future of the nation’s space efforts, only to collect dust on bookshelves, policy documents run the risk of being little more than words on paper unless those words are backed by government actions. A year after the release of its overarching national space policy, what has the administration done to carry out this policy?

A report card on implementing the policy

A panel of experts from inside and outside government debated that question at a forum in Washington earlier this month held by the Secure World Foundation. Their assessment, not surprisingly, is that the administration’s implementation of the policy is very much a work in progress, with clear efforts underway in some areas but lacking in others.

Marquez said the efforts of the administration, in concert with industry and foreign governments, to “fight off” LightSquared were an “A-plus moment for the implementation of the president’s space policy”.

“Implementing the policy is far more difficult” than writing it, said Peter Marquez, who in his previous position as director of space policy for the National Security Council led the development of the national space policy. A new policy often comes in conflict with existing programs, a situation he analogized with a person who says he’ll start a diet tomorrow, only to have that plan run afoul of a business lunch or other exigency. “The president knows that full well when he signs on to the document: that that is my desire, but that sometimes desires don’t match up with reality.”

Marquez, who left the government last fall to become a vice president at Orbital Sciences Corporation, offered his assessment of how the administration was addressing various elements of the policy. He said the administration is making progress in areas like assured access to space, with work starting on a revamp of the national space transportation policy that dates back to 2004. The government is also taking steps to address ongoing problems with space procurement, examining alternative approaches ranging from block buys of systems to hosting government payloads on commercial satellites. “DOD is, by and large, the most prolific procurer of capabilities, and DOD is aware that they have a problem, which I think is a key first step,” he said.

He also singled out the administration’s policy on positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT), citing a specific issue he said has become “one of the greatest time sucks” in recent months. That issue, which has gained broader attention only within the last few weeks, involves plans by one company, LightSquared, to deploy a wireless broadband system using a combination of terrestrial and satellite infrastructure. Other companies warned that LightSquared’s system could interfere with GPS receivers, effectively jamming them, a conclusion backed by test results released in recent weeks.

“The recent activity with LightSquared has taken the majority of everybody’s time who works space issues, whether they’re at State, whether they’re at DOD, or whether they’re at the White House,” Marquez said. He said the efforts of the administration, in concert with industry and foreign governments, to “fight off” LightSquared were an “A-plus moment for the implementation of the president’s space policy”, whose provisions include a call to “invest in domestic capabilities and support international activities to detect, mitigate, and increase resiliency to harmful interference to GPS.”

He added that among the recent recommendations regarding LightSquared by the National Space-Based PNT Advisory Board—on which he serves—was that the company’s spectrum allocation be moved away from any global navigation system, not just GPS. “It was an awareness by the US’s advisory board that the foreign PNT systems were just as valuable as US domestic PNT systems, again, reflecting back to what was in the president’s policy,” he said.

In other areas of the policy, though, the administration has made little progress to date. The government “has not done a very good job at the SSA [space situational awareness] portions and orbital debris directives that are in the national space policy,” Marquez said. While SSA is critical to safe and responsible space operations—one of the central tenets of the overall policy—it’s not adequately funded, he said. Export control reform is another area that has seen little progress, given disagreements between the White House and Congress. “I don’t really know if there’s going to be any move forward on export control,” he said.

“I think we’re doing a good job with implementing the policy,” Marquez said. “I think we’re doing the right things and it’s moving in the right direction.”

Marquez also noted some mixed messages about another aspect of the policy, involving “mission assurance” of space capabilities. While key military officials have expressed their support for this, he said, they may not be interpreting that concept the same way as originally intended. “When the term ‘mission assurance’ was put into the policy, my intent was not to mean assuring the satellite’s function,” he said. “That was the last thing in my mind. What was really meant there was to assure the satellite’s reason for being.” In other words, if that space-based system failed, there was some backup system, be it in space or on the ground, to carry out that role. “So far we’ve been wrapped around the axle of how to gold-plate a satellite so that it functions in all conditions, and that was the wrong approach.”

While NASA policy, specifically its human spaceflight plans, predated the overall national space policy by several months, Marquez addressed its implementation as well. “The NASA rollout was about as bad as it possibly gets,” he said of the decision to unveil those plans as part of the agency’s budget request in February 2010. “It’s still very vague as to what the actual direction is,” he said, an issue which he says is not the fault of NASA but instead the White House. “I just don’t think the White House gave appropriate leadership for an agency that was crying for it.”

Overall, though, Marquez is satisfied with the pace of implementation of the policy. “I think we’re doing a good job with implementing the policy,” he said. “I think we’re doing the right things and it’s moving in the right direction.”

International reaction and codes of conduct

One major difference widely cited between the current administration’s space policy and the one released by the George W. Bush Administration in 2006 has been its tone. The Obama Administration’s policy has been more open to international cooperation on various issues, although it retains language from previous policies that puts strict guidance on when the US should sign onto space arms control measures.

Previous US views on space issues, including space arms control, “was not received well by the international community,” said Ben Baseley-Walker, advisor on security policy and international law for the Secure World Foundation. “It was seen as inconsistent, it was seen as antagonistic, and it was seen as isolationist.” That view can’t be immediately changed, he said, but the new space policy takes steps in that direction. “What the national space policy has done is to start to rebuild trust, start to rebuild consistency, and start to rebuild the reliability of the US as an internationally-engaged partner.”

Just how willing the US is to be a better international partner will depend on not just the words in the policy, but other forces, notably funding, that force the US to engage more with other nations. “The US has not been put into a situation financially, or on specific limitations on the goals it wants to achieve, to have to deal with international partners,” he said. That could change down the road, he noted, such as when—at some time after 2020—the International Space Station is retired, at which time it’s possible the only space station in orbit is Chinese.

More recently, the national space policy has been wrapped up in debates about a proposed “Code of Conduct” for outer space activities promulgated by the European Union (see “Debating a code of conduct for space”, The Space Review, March 7, 2011). The document seeks to provide a set of best practices dealing with space activities, including avoiding the creation of orbital debris and minimizing the risk of collisions.

“What the national space policy has done is to start to rebuild trust, start to rebuild consistency, and start to rebuild the reliability of the US as an internationally-engaged partner,” said Baseley-Walker.

Many of the elements of the EU Code are closely aligned with themes of the new US national space policy, which puts a new emphasis on space sustainability and ensuring access to space for all who wish to use it peacefully. This has raised speculation that the US might soon sign on to the EU Code: although so far there has been no formal move by the US to do so, there have been discussions between American and European officials about aspects of the proposed code of conduct.

Baseley-Walker noted that proposals like the EU Code can be “an asset to national security in the long-term”, and that the national space policy does endorse the use of such “transparency and confidence-building measures” to, in its words, “encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space.” However, he said the US should proceed with caution when it comes to the EU Code in order to encourage wider adoption of the code, or something like it, by other nations. “Being very careful with our diplomatic strategy and working out our timing and how best we can build the foundations for long-term success for this issue” is preferable than expending political capital on signing onto this particular document, he said.

Andrew Palowitch, the director of the Space Protection Program, a joint effort of the US Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office, said his personal view was that any such code of conduct needs to be a truly international document, not an EU one, with involvement from Russia, China, and “space wannabe” nations. Such an approach makes any code more difficult to do, “but harder is not necessarily ‘wronger’; you want to do this because it’s the right thing to do.”

Marquez said that while the national space policy is aligned to some degree to the EU Code, that doesn’t mean that the US should sign onto it. “You can say that the intent of the EU code of conduct is in line with the US national space policy, and that I would wholeheartedly agree with,” he said. But interpretation of that language can differ even within the US, let alone with an international audience, raising the risk of “the law of unintended consequences.”

“I don’t think the US signing up to an EU code of conduct shows a form a leadership,” he said. “We’re already doing these things, we’ve signed up to doing them on our own. Leadership is gained through experience and knowledge, not through following.”

How much does the new policy matter?

While panelists discussed details about implementation, and its affect on initiatives like the EU Code of Conduct, they also weighed in on a bigger question: just how influential has the new policy been? Some questioned how big of an impact it’s had, at least so far.

“Everything that happened in this last year, and everything that’s going to happen in the next year, is completely independent of that national space policy,” said Palowitch. His rationale is that it takes years to plan and carry out major space programs, and thus a new policy has little effect on programs already in some phase of development and operations. “Changes do not happen rapidly in space.”

Government activities in the last year, from the surge in national security satellite launches to the impending retirement of the Space Shuttle, had their roots in decisions made long before the policy’s release, he noted, while commercial activities are largely independent of national space policy and are based on economic rationales. Even discussion about the EU Code, he argued, had their basis outside of the policy.

“Everything that happened in this last year, and everything that’s going to happen in the next year, is completely independent of that national space policy,” said Palowitch. “Changes do not happen rapidly in space.”

Palowitch also offered a corollary to his argument about the independence of actions from the national space policy: “our actions, our reactions, and our inaction has been the actual policy that we have shown for the past year and will do for the next year.” That’s particularly true regarding international perceptions of US policy, he said. “What we did action-wise over the year was 1,000 times more important than what we actually wrote down on a piece of paper.”

However, despite questioning its near-term impact, Palowitch called the new national space policy “fantastic” and expects to see results from it in the next 18 to 24 months. He said a number of government agencies are moving forward with implementing aspects of the policy, but those efforts take time. “We’re not going to see those in the next 12 months,” he said, citing the constraints of coordinating changes among government agencies.

Marquez disagreed with the claim that the policy hasn’t changed anything in the last year. “It is somewhat false if you look at political initiatives and international relations initiatives,” he said. “What we’ve been doing on the international front has dramatically changed in the past year.”

It’s clear that the space policy’s impact, whatever it turns out to be, will be measured over the long haul and not based on what’s been accomplished in its first 12 months. The policy, said Baseley-Walker, has created “intellectual foundations” that agencies within the government are still grappling with. “Which is,” he added, “what the space policy should do: it should lay down long-term direction for building sound, extensive national and international policy.”