The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Bush at NASA HQ
The new National Space Policy allows the Bush Administration to provide its official direction for the nation’s space efforts, based on both what it includes and what it omits. (credit: White House)

Not really lost in space: the new National Space Policy

Ever since the new National Space Policy was released on October 6, partisan pundits on both the right and the left have been commenting on it with limited degrees of knowledge or logic. After reading their work, one gets the sense that very few of the commentators actually bothered to read the ten-page policy. Rather, they read articles about the policy, and comments about it by people they dislike, and then fit it into their standard partisan model of good and bad. Because all politics are tribal these days, there is no need to actually think. All that matters is whether one is a Crip or a Blood, an Eloi or a Morlock, a Republican or a Democrat. Rather than analyze and discuss, the pundits reach for the nearest rock.

Many foreign journalists, as well as left-leaning newspaper editorial boards, have attacked the policy, claiming that it indicates that the United States is seeking to become a new “space cop” and planning on denying access to space to countries that America deems unacceptable. The policy does not say that, however, and merely states (more forcefully than is probably warranted) that the United States will not accept a situation whereby other countries can deny America access to space. There’s a big difference between acting as a space cop and stating that you will not allow another country to push you around.

There’s a big difference between acting as a space cop and stating that you will not allow another country to push you around.

Commentators on the right side of the political spectrum have been less vociferous, but have done little better as far as their facts are concerned, overstating or at least misstating the current threat to American space operations. For instance, Michael Goldfarb, writing in The Weekly Standard, manages to make a lot of erroneous claims about space warfare in his discussion of the new space policy. He starts by claiming that China recently tested “an anti-satellite laser” and “disabled a U.S. spy satellite in the process.” This event was widely reported on the Internet, although not in the print media other than trade newspapers—neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post reported it, but Defense News, which broke the story, did report it, as did Space News. The event was publicly confirmed by a Department of Defense official, who did not state that this was an “anti-satellite weapon,” nor that the satellite was damaged, nor that the target was an intelligence satellite, as opposed to a weather or navigation satellite. In fact, even considering The Weekly Standard’s erroneous claims, the reaction on the right to the Chinese action has been curiously muted. If an American satellite had indeed been “disabled” by a Chinese laser, it could easily be interpreted as an act of war. Yet pundits on the right surprisingly have not called for retaliatory action against China. In fact, the White House has not even indicated that a diplomatic protest was filed with the Chinese over the incident. How serious was this incident?

The Weekly Standard also repeated the long-discredited claim that China is seeking to develop “parasitic microsatellites” capable of attaching themselves to other spacecraft in orbit. This claim, first made in a 2003 Department of Defense document (and later repeated in 2004), has been shown to be based on nothing more than a Hong Kong tabloid newspaper story that itself was lifted from a Chinese Internet bulletin board. The lesson of this story is not that the Chinese are necessarily threatening, but that American intelligence on the Chinese threat has occasionally been incredibly sloppy.

The Weekly Standard also noted the “attempt by a foreign military to interfere with American military satellites,” referring to the incident during the American invasion of Iraq when the Iraqis used a localized jammer to try to disrupt GPS signals. The article quotes an interview in Military Aerospace Technology where General Lance Lord of Air Force Space Command quoted then-Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche who had claimed that this incident indicated that “the war in space has begun.” Then Lord added a quip of his own: “And I’d add: ‘We didn't start it.’” Roche and Lord’s comments are more than a little disingenuous, especially considering the overwhelming American military presence in space. What The Weekly Standard article failed to recognize was that the Iraqi effort was a) ineffective (the GPS jammer was destroyed with a GPS-guided bomb), b) lame, and c) hardly an example of Iraq initiating (an unprovoked) “space war” (the United States was, after all, dropping GPS-guided bombs on them). But to believe The Weekly Standard, American satellites are currently already under attack.

Fortunately, although the partisan discussions have not been in short supply, they have not been the only discussions of the new space policy. More sober analysts have explained that in terms of actual policy positions, the 2006 National Space Policy is not fundamentally different from the 1996 Clinton-era policy that it replaced. Equally worth noting is that the new policy document is not really different than the overall Bush administration national security policy of the past five years.

Origins of the new policy

The development of a new space policy to replace the 1996 Clinton administration policy was first initiated in 2002 with an order by President Bush to the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Previous policy documents concerned remote sensing; position, navigation, and timing; space transportation; and the Vision for Space Exploration. The National Space Policy was therefore the fifth space policy document to emerge from the Bush White House, and the existence of these previous documents provides some context for the latest one.

But to believe The Weekly Standard, American satellites are currently already under attack.

The policy document’s release had been publicly expected for almost two years. It reportedly went through 35 drafts before it was finalized, but persons knowledgeable with other senior-level policy documents indicated that this is not an unusually large number of drafts. The delay, however, was unusual, and was reportedly due to conflicts over the roles and responsibilities of the new Directorate of National Intelligence. Previous policies divided responsibilities between the Department of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence, but a new intelligence bureaucracy demanded different considerations. The ten-page document was signed by President Bush on August 31 and released at the end of the day on Friday, October 6—a release clearly intended to gather minimal attention. That ploy was relatively successful, as the document was not discussed in the trade press until over a week later, and it was only after it appeared in the trade press (specifically Space News) that the Washington Post took note of it, thus leading to much wider exposure.

Unilateralism vs. multilateralism

The new document states that the United States will be guided by several principles in its space policy. What critics of the policy have overlooked is that one of the document’s seven principles—stated right at the beginning—declares that: “The United States is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity.” Another principle declares that: “The United States will seek to cooperate with other nations in the peaceful use of outer space to extend the benefits of space, enhance space exploration, and to protect and promote freedom around the world.” These have been long-standing US policy goals dating from the Eisenhower Administration. But despite the criticism, the policy clearly indicates that the United States is committed to the peaceful use of outer space.

Most analysts who have compared the 2006 policy with the 1996 policy have focused upon the tone of the document, particularly its adoption of a more unilateralist approach to the subject of access to space, and the policy’s rejection of new treaties or other limitations on American access to or utilization of space. They have also focused on the policy’s greater emphasis on national security space issues, noting, for instance, that whereas the 1996 policy outlined five goals for the US space program and mentioned national security for two of them, the new policy outlines six goals for the US space program and mentions national security in four of them. However, despite earlier reports, the policy does not specifically endorse the deployment of weapons in space, but it does make clear that the administration is opposed to any actions that may limit such deployment.

The new space policy clearly reflects both the overall policies of the current administration as well as the decisions that the administration has made in the past several years. For example, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June 2002 and the space policy reflects the fact that the United States is no longer constrained by treaty from testing and deploying anti-missile weapons in space. Similarly, the United States developed and adopted its Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices in 1997, after the earlier policy was released, and they are therefore incorporated into the new policy.

The unilateralist tone of the new policy is immediately apparent. The policy states in its principles section that: “The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.” Compare this to the language in the 1996 policy: “The United States will consider and, as appropriate, formulate policy 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.” Whereas the 1996 document emphasizes “considering” arms control policies, the new document makes clear that the administration is wary of arms control in general and views it as a possible threat to American space operations.

The new space policy clearly reflects both the overall policies of the current administration as well as the decisions that the administration has made in the past several years.

The new tone is also reflected in what is no longer included in the new policy. For example, the 1996 policy used the word “cooperation” in reference to international activities approximately a dozen times; the new policy does so only four times. The 1996 policy used the words “arms control” seven times (including reference to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency), whereas the new policy uses the words twice, with no reference to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency’s role in space policy-related issues. Content analysis—counting the number of times that a word or phrase is used—is an old technique for judging the importance that certain policies or ideas have in official documents. Clearly, international cooperation and arms control are greatly deemphasized in this new policy.

Changing times, changing issues

What few partisan pundits or dispassionate analysts noted about the new space policy is the degree to which it reflects not merely the change in ideology or political control since 1996, but also the change in issues facing the American space program compared to 1996. Although the document appears to place a greater overall emphasis on national security space issues, this may also reflect the fact that the administration views national security space as more troubled, and therefore in greater need of attention, than civil space. The civil space sector received clear direction from the White House several years ago, and the primary issue now is implementation, not policy and planning. Another example of this is the issue of space launch, which received specific attention in 1996, a time when the United States was still awarding study contracts for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. Now that the Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets have reached operational capability, policy guidance is relatively less important than in 1996, and hence space launch is not given much attention in the new document.

Perhaps most notably, the policy includes several government guidelines that are undoubtedly a response to the problems experienced by the national security space sector in the past decade. These guidelines include developing “space professionals,” improving systems development and procurement, increasing and strengthening interagency partnerships, and strengthening and maintaining the US-based science, technology, and industrial base.

The space policy also includes a section on access to the frequency spectrum and orbit management and interference protection that was not included in the 1996 version. This subject may be addressed now because of several changes in both the space environment and the political situation. The primary factor is probably that the frequency spectrum is much more crowded today than it was only ten years ago. With the available resources diminishing, everybody who wants access to the frequency spectrum is much more concerned today than a decade ago. Second, the US military is concerned about access to the frequency spectrum more so than a decade ago, both because of the greater demand for it, and because of greater demand in areas of the spectrum that used to be primarily occupied by the military, such as the Extremely High Frequency/Ka-band. Whereas the only satellites that used Ka-band a decade ago were US military and intelligence spacecraft, today many commercial satellites, such as EchoStar’s Dish Network, use those frequencies. One of the provisions of the new space policy is that government agencies must “explicitly address requirements for radio frequency spectrum and orbit assignments prior to approving acquisition of new space capabilities.” Clearly, the drafters of this policy want this issue to be dealt with upfront, and not as an afterthought.

The new tone is also reflected in what is no longer included in the new policy. For example, the 1996 policy used the word “cooperation” in reference to international activities approximately a dozen times; the new policy does so only four times.

In addition to changes in the space policy environment in the last decade, the document also reflects the various actions that the administration has already taken in the space policy field. For instance, several independent observers claimed that the lack of attention to civil space policy in the new document indicated decreased administration interest in the subject, or worse, an administration that was backing away from its own space exploration goals. However, subjects such as the Vision for Space Exploration did not need to be substantially addressed in the policy because they have already been addressed in previous policy documents. The National Space Policy did not have to cover all subjects in the space field, only those that in the minds of administration officials currently lack sufficient guidance. Similarly, NASA is affected less by this document—and concerned less about it—precisely because the agency has its own separate guidance.

Civil space and Earth observation

The new space policy reflects the goals of the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration and NASA’s new focus on exploration. However, it also makes clear that exploration is not the sole goal of the agency, stating that the NASA administrator shall: “execute a sustained and affordable human and robotic program of space exploration and develop, acquire, and use civil space systems to advance fundamental scientific knowledge of our Earth system, solar system, and universe.”

In contrast, the 1996 policy was more expansive, stating that NASA: “will focus its research and development efforts in: space science to enhance knowledge of the solar system, the universe, and fundamental natural and physical sciences; Earth observation to better understand global change and the effect of natural and human influences on the environment; human space flight to conduct scientific, commercial, and exploration activities; and space technologies and applications to develop new technologies in support of U.S. Government needs and our economic competitiveness.”

Although the new policy document does not have to cover every issue in the space policy field, the omission of certain subjects does appear rather curious. For instance, the new policy includes no mention of the International Space Station nor the Space Shuttle, which remain the current major focus of NASA activities. Although they were addressed in the Vision for Space Exploration document of January 2004, it seems odd that they are not even mentioned here. Similarly, whereas the 1996 document outlined a considerable role for international cooperation in civil space policy, the new version lists only two civil areas for cooperation: exploration programs and Earth observation. Either by accident or intent, other space science opportunities are not mentioned. This might be because the administration views “exploration” to include subjects such as solar system and astrophysics missions, or it might signal that the administration sees fewer useful opportunities for such cooperation.

Although documents such as the National Space Policy serve an important function in guiding the activities of the federal bureaucracy, the role of senior space policy documents should not be overemphasized.

Another major change compared to 1996 is that the earlier policy devoted considerable attention to the subject of Earth science or Earth observation, mentioning it over 20 times, and devoting an entire section to the subject. In contrast, the new document mentions this subject only six times. To some extent this reflects the fact that the Earth Observing System was in full-scale development in 1996 and it has now been deployed. The 1996 policy also reflected government interest in promoting the budding commercial remote sensing field, which has now matured. The new policy might also reflect the fact that NASA has been awaiting direction in Earth science from the National Research Council’s forthcoming decadal survey. However, even all of these factors combined seem insufficient to explain the lack of discussion of this subject in the new policy. Whereas the 1996 policy mentioned the importance of studying global change, the new version does not. This diminished attention to Earth science and observation reflects the current administration’s policy agenda, as well as the fact that Earth science no longer has a champion in the Vice President’s office.

One unusual aspect of the new policy is the section on space nuclear power. The section in the new policy is considerably longer than in the 1996 version, despite the fact that after the effective cancellation of the civilian Prometheus program, the United States (specifically NASA) no longer has plans to develop space nuclear reactors in the near future. Much of this section is also devoted to “non-government spacecraft utilizing nuclear power sources.” There are currently no known non-government spacecraft proposed that fit this description, and the operations and development costs of such a vehicle would be prohibitively expensive. Yet they are included in the policy. Is this a real issue, or a quirk of the policy deliberation process?

Implementing American space policy

Although documents such as the National Space Policy serve an important function in guiding the activities of the federal bureaucracy, the role of senior space policy documents should not be overemphasized. This document was started in 2002 and yet was not issued until four years later, after a tempestuous process. During those four years, American space policy changed in important ways, yet the 1996 Clinton policy was still technically in effect (the new document indicates that it supersedes the previous one). For all intents and purposes, the 2006 National Space Policy will become moot at the end of the current administration in January 2009—even if it is not formally rescinded—because whoever enters the White House at that time will have a different set of policy objectives.

More importantly, the annual budget cycle, not to mention the interaction between Congress and the White House, play major roles in determining what space policies get implemented and how. Clearly the new space policy reflects both a different space environment and the priorities of a different administration compared to ten years ago. But this document does not automatically signal a change in direction for the current administration’s plans for space towards a more militant space policy. Rather, it reflects the priorities of the current administration, priorities which should be well-known by now, nearly six years into the Bush tenure.