Home inFocus Unforced Errors in the New National Space Policy

Unforced Errors in the New National Space Policy

Eric R. Sterner Fall 2010

The United States has wrestled with the space age’s implications since before the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite in 1957. Successive presidents often approached space issues in clusters of national security, civil, and commercial activities. More often than not, they addressed those issues in isolation from one another as problems arose. Consequently, national space policy has been frequently disjointed and given short shrift to interdependencies across the three sectors.

This created substantial risk for U.S. space power, which is a critical component of its national security, economy, and soft power leadership. The U.S. space industry is a net exporter of goods and services, making it economically important, and space-derived goods and services form key components of critical U.S. infrastructure. Global space spending totaled some $262 billion last year with the United States clearly the dominant player. The U.S. armed forces depend on space systems, such as the Global Positioning System, communications satellites, and reconnaissance satellites for the global projection of American power. NASA has been the recognized leader of international efforts to explore space and U.S. commercial firms have led global space commerce.

To its credit, the Obama administration, which released its National Space Policy in June 2010, attempted to reconcile that disjointedness. The policy is comprehensive, addressing issues in all three sectors, and forward leaning, seeking to fundamentally change the manner in which the U.S. government approaches civil space activity. Unfortunately, the policy contains a number of unforced errors that present real risks for U.S. national space power.

Space and National Security

National security leaders historically approached U.S. national security in space through the parallel prisms of capabilities and the right to use them. The Bush administration was most explicit on the point in its 2006 National Space Policy, declaring space capabilities “vital” to U.S. national interests and reaffirming that it considers “space systems to have rights of passage through and operations in space without interference.” The 2010 National Space Policy reaffirms the right to pass through and operate in space without interference, but shifts the focus from U.S. capabilities to the domain of space. Rather than securing U.S. interests through the development of national security capabilities and preserving them vis-à-vis potential adversaries, the 2010 policy intends to protect U.S. national security by securing the domain of space itself through the promulgation of rules, norms, and codes of conduct.

As the National Space Policy recognizes, the number of spacefaring states is growing. Many of them are historical U.S. allies, but some lack such close relationships, or may even be potential adversaries in certain scenarios. Many clearly recognize space’s military potential. For example, China is aggressively developing more advanced space-based communications and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems that help it project power over longer distances. India has developed a tri-service space cell to consider future direction for its space capabilities relative to its military capabilities. Iran has launched its own satellites and Venezuela is procuring communications satellites. Because space systems are generally dual-use, even dedicated civilian systems have military applications. Taken together, the spread of space capabilities represents a potential means by which countries might offset relative U.S. military advantages.

The administration’s policy does not grasp the entirety of the problem. Rather than addressing the contributions space capabilities make to an overall military posture, it focuses on the role that space systems may play in promoting transparency and crisis management. With that in mind, international rules and norms to enhance this role for space systems seem desirable. However, others with a more comprehensive perspective are likely to use a rule-making process to constrain U.S. space capabilities, effectively reducing U.S. military advantages at the negotiating table.

For example, in 2002, at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, Russia and China proposed a treaty text that would prohibit the development of space-based counterspace systems, in which the United States would potentially have an advantage, while permitting the continued deployment of terrestrial counterspace systems, which Russia inherited from the Soviet Union and China recently demonstrated. While the 2006 space policy ruled such negotiations out, the Obama National Space Policy leaves the door open to them. At the same time, the 2010 policy quite publicly erased the Bush administration’s commitment to superior space capabilities, practically inviting others to seek rough parity with the United States both through negotiation of international rules and improvements in their own space capabilities.

Despite the risks, a rule-making approach does not have to constrain U.S. capabilities. Instead, pursuing issue-focused agreements to prevent routine problems may create a more stable environment for U.S. space activities. Orbital debris, for example, is a growing problem with the potential to cascade out of control. It presents a “security of the global commons” problem for all spacefaring states, although some appear more committed to addressing it. Interference with legitimate operations in the electromagnetic spectrum represents another problem. Iran routinely interferes with communications satellite transmissions without consequence. More innocently, in the spring of 2010, the multinational corporation Intelsat SA lost the ability to ensure that its Galaxy 15 communications satellite maintained its station. As the satellite drifted, it began interfering with other satellites. Yet, there were no pre-established procedures for Intelsat SA, or any relevant government, to work through issues of warning, tracking, liability, etc.

Pre-established procedures could help reduce the transaction costs of resolving problems on an ad hoc basis. The administration should remain focused on rule-making in these areas to protect the domain, rather than opening itself up to broader security discussions that would more likely result in constraints on U.S. capabilities. Private, bilateral discussions will prove more fruitful than multilateral forums, which usually involve multiple, ulterior, competing motives and interests, voting blocs, and political grandstanding.

Civil Space

In 2004, the Bush administration announced the Vision for Space Exploration, which it offered, in part, in response to the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. The “vision” intended to send people to Mars, after first establishing a permanent presence on the moon. These goals provided a focus for NASA, which had been criticized for its lack since the end of the Apollo program. Congress endorsed the vision, and the programs attached to it, twice—under both Republican and Democratic majorities. Unfortunately, from the time it was announced until President Obama took office, funding for the vision was continually cut, either to meet increased demands in NASA’s “non-vision” programs or through reductions in the projected top line. As a result, President Obama took office with a woefully underfunded program. A review committee indicated that the program of record, built around a rocket-capsule program known as Constellation, faced an annual shortfall of $3 billion in its projected baseline budget.

Against that backdrop, the Obama administration proposed a major strategic reorientation of the American civil space program. It sought to cancel the Constellation program, the backbone of NASA’s effort to develop human spaceflight capabilities to replace the space shuttle and reach the moon. Instead, the administration proposed to build new relationships with the private sector, providing subsidies ($6 billion over five years) for the development of privately-owned human spaceflight capabilities on the assumption that they: 1) could meet government needs more cheaply than traditional procurement mechanisms; and 2) would enable the growth of private demand for human spaceflight capabilities to low-earth orbit. Addressing a long-standing criticism of the vision or, at least, its funding profile, the administration also sought to initiate a more robust technology development program, using funds freed up in the baseline by canceling the Constellation program and its moon-Mars focus. Finally, the administration proposed extending the International Space Station’s operational life from 2015 to 2020.

Congress and industry greeted the administration’s proposal with bipartisan objections, which only intensified as the details, or lack thereof, emerged. Meanwhile, the NASA administrator told Arab television audiences that outreach to Muslims was a top priority for his agency and argued with a U.S. Senator over whether he admitted the administration’s plan might require future bailouts of the space industry. Within months, the administration changed direction and added new content to its proposed plans without increasing the budget, only leading to further confusion about its true intentions and expectations.

At the end of the day, the administration’s initiative foundered for several reasons—unrealistic budget profiles, ambiguity, insufficient intellectual foundations, inadequate political preparation—and Congress forced it to accept a political compromise with elements both of the old program and the administration’s new orientation. Nevertheless, even some Congressional space leaders who voted for the compromise expressed dissatisfaction with it as an inadequate solution to the problems facing the civil space program.

No doubt, civil space policy will remain turbulent for several years as policymakers wrestle with NASA’s very purpose. This does not bode well for large aerospace programs, which generally need years, if not decades, of consistent funding and political commitment in order to produce any meaningful results. In the end, the administration’s feckless approach to the civil space sector threatens America’s human spaceflight program at a time when China’s is taking off.

Commercial Space

The administration has demonstrated a strong commitment to space commercialization. Indeed, its ambitions in the civil space arena initially called for NASA to exchange its human spaceflight capabilities for a new public-private partnership. The NASA administrator asserted, “NASA will accelerate and enhance its support for the commercial spaceflight industry to make travel to low Earth orbit and beyond more accessible and more affordable.” The space policy goes further by directing a range of pro-commerce behavior, such as purchasing commercially available goods and services that meet government requirements to the maximum extent practical, laying down a series of restrictions, such as developing government space systems only when there is no suitable commercial alternative.

Taken individually or collectively as a strategy to build a firmer foundation for American spacepower, each of these provisions has value. Indeed, commercialization advocates have been promoting them for years and many have been doing victory laps in the policy community (and demonizing opponents) since the administration unveiled its own space initiatives. Unfortunately, in rearranging American space priorities and seeking to promote private sector interests, the White House took those specific commercialization tools out of context. It redefined commercialization, the purpose of which traditionally was to promote the growth of free markets in space goods and services, dominated by U.S. firms, as a means of promoting the development of space. Instead, the administration’s proposals would encourage the privatization of U.S. space capabilities; market growth is incidental.

National Space Policy Directive 3, dating back to 1991, defined commercial space activities as the provision of goods and services such that private capital is at risk; there are existing or potential non-government customers for the activity; the commercial market ultimately determines the viability of the activity; and, primary responsibility and management initiative for the activity resides with the private sector. The Obama administration’s space policy most notably deletes the definitional requirement that the commercial market ultimately determines the viability of the activity, replacing it only with an expectation that a private sector enterprise have the legal capacity to offer its goods and services to existing or potential nongovernmental customers. This elimination of markets signifies a major concern with the administration’s philosophical approach to commercialization.

Typically, markets function as a selection mechanism to ensure that capital and labor are rationally, and efficiently, allocated in the long term. Without such a process, government will be the ultimate arbiter of who wins, and loses, in the commercial space sector based on government’s needs, which are not market driven and may well be immune from traditional rules of supply and demand. Governments, of course, make such decisions through a political process, not through economic competition. An inefficient mechanism that determines which commercial space ventures succeed, and ensures that aerospace capital, labor, and innovation will be wasted on inefficient space ventures, ultimately crowds out ventures which have a greater potential for success. The administration’s approach risks creating an entirely new class of companies that, for all intents and purposes, are dependent on the taxpayer for their success.

Beyond 2010

In crafting the 2010 National Space Policy, the administration demonstrated a high degree of creativity and policy innovation. Many of its proposals are truly revolutionary. If nothing else, the president should be commended for having the courage needed to shake things up. That said, the administration clearly failed to fully consider the implications of its actions, needlessly opening the door to increased national security risks, creating a political firestorm in the otherwise staid field of civil space policy, and raising the prospects of future “commercial” space ventures perpetually dependent on taxpayer subsidies. During the next two years, it will have ample opportunity to compensate for its initial mistakes. Given the growing number of space powers, one hopes that it moves swiftly to do so.

Eric R. Sterner is a fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute. He held senior staff positions on the House Armed Services and Science Committees and served in the Department of Defense and as NASA’s associate deputy administrator for Policy and Planning.