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Sustaining American Space Leadership: The Destination Debate Isn’t Enough


With the start of his administration now underway, President Donald Trump’s space policy priorities remain largely undefined. Amid uncertainty about his goals for NASA, many in the space community are concerned about what the new president will set as the United States’ policy and programmatic focus in space over the next four years. Will he keep NASA on track to Mars or pivot the agency back to the Moon? How will he deal with new challenges facing the space regime, if at all?

Three of the four Apollo 13 Flight Directors applaud the successful splashdown of the Command Module “Odyssey.” Image courtesy of NASA.

A significant upending of the space policy status quo wouldn’t be without precedent. Bitter memories of NASA’s Constellation Program, a return to the Moon set in motion under President Bush and prematurely ended by President Obama, linger for many.

To preempt any significant change in direction, the current political leadership has sought for the United States to “stay the course” in space. In early October, President Obama wrote an op-ed recommending that his space policy legacy continue through the Trump presidency. In September, the Senate committee overseeing NASA approved a short-term authorization bill that sets NASA’s focus through the start of the new administration to continue working on an eventual human mission to Mars.

However, as Congress and the Trump Administration will find, ensuring continuity in America’s space policy is no longer the issue that matters most. Traditional thinking – of “big goals” and destinations – alone will not maintain the security of the United States’ space leadership. Outer space is no longer the domain it traditionally was.

Instead, a proliferation of foreign space actors, some adversarial, are challenging longstanding norms in space that the United States has worked hard to establish and protect. New commercial operators are raising serious questions about how non-traditional space actors will be regulated and governed. Issues such as space debris and congestion pose a greater threat to the space “commons” than ever before.

Simply put, the space regime is changing. In order to sustain American space leadership, the United States must prioritize a policy that addresses these the pressures facing US space leadership.There are clear policy directions the new administration can take toward that end.

First, the United States should commit to and implement the UN guidelines on long-term space sustainability. This would constitute an American endorsement of updated space norms that account for new actors and current circumstances. By outlining several multilateral approaches to sharing information about space activities and defining best behaviors, these guidelines seek to reinforce an accountable space regime. The United States could, in subscribing to these guidelines, pave the way for a more responsible international use of space, incentivize other actors to follow suit, and single out those who don’t.

The United States should actively expand efforts with other spacefaring states to share space situational awareness data. This would establish greater transparency in space activity than exists today, which would in turn bolster and protect the space “commons.” As part of this effort, the US government should also work with domestic industry and international partners to codify and execute voluntary codes of conduct, ranging from non-interference with space assets to orbital debris mitigation.

It is necessary that the new administration press Congress to develop legislation that deals with non-traditional commercial space activity in order to lay the framework for a comprehensive regulatory regime. As it stands today, considerable regulatory and legal uncertainty – not to mention international skepticism – surround commercial space activity. An effort to consult with partners and allies, some of which are interestedin fostering the commercial use of space, on regulatory standards would contribute to building international confidence in this type of activity. Equally so, establishing domestic solutions to outstanding legal and regulatory questions early on would create a template that other nations can apply as they begin to foster space commerce in their own economies.

With China looking to counter America’s space superiority and Russia renewing anti-satellite weapon testing, the troubling possibility that conflict will extend to space appears increasingly possible. War in space will significantly upset the economies and military capabilities of powers that rely on space systems – especially the United States. New approaches to space security are crucial in the increasingly contested and competitive space environment. Embracing the Department of Defenses’ work on satellite security and resilience through support from Congress and the administration would deter and disincentivize military threats to our space systems. So too would redoubling the State Department’s diplomatic engagement of potential adversaries about opportunities for space cooperation and expectations regarding peaceful space behavior.

Big goals for NASA and the destination debate sufficed when space, the domain of superpowers, was limited to the race to land on an extraterrestrial surface. That is no longer the case. In the coming future, the leader in space will be the country that sets the rules of the game as to how space will be used, protected, and governed. The United States cannot afford to stand by idly as others set those new norms. In creating, implementing, and discussing the country’s space policy goals, President Trump and the new Congress would be wise to recognize that.

Cody Knipfer is an Associate at PoliSpace and expects to receive his MA in International Science and Technology Policy in 2018 from George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. Cody is the Technology & Cybersecurity Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).

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