Research Paper

United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities

George Abbey and Neal Francis Lane
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American Academy of Arts and Sciences

United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities

Research Paper Cover: United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities

George Abbey and Neal Lane

A report of the Reconsidering the Rules of Space Project

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In January 2004, President George W. Bush announced a plan for returning humans to the Moon and eventually flying a manned mission to Mars. The president’s vision was meant to inspire new advances in space exploration. Yet U.S. space policy remains hamstrung by internal contradiction. Space exploration on the scale envisioned in the president’s plan is by necessity a cooperative international venture. Neither the president’s plan nor the prevailing thrust of existing U.S. space policies encourages the type of international partnerships that are needed. Indeed there is much about U.S. space policy and plans—particularly those pertaining to the possible deployment of weapons in space—that even our closest allies find objectionable.

To examine U.S. space policy in greater detail, the Academy called upon George Abbey and Neal Lane (both of Rice University). Their paper identifies challenges and opportunities for the United States space program, paying particular attention to unintended consequences of current space policy, which, as they write, “presents a paradoxical picture of high ambition and diminishing commitment.”

Abbey and Lane identify four barriers to U.S. progress in space science and exploration: the strict regulation of satellite exports as munitions under the State Department rules, a projected shortfall in the science and engineering workforce, unrealistic plans for NASA’s future space missions that neglect the important role of science, and faltering international cooperation on existing and planned space missions. These barriers, according to Abbey and Lane, will have to be overcome if the United States space program is to succeed. They urge the United States to strive for a “balanced program of commerce, science, exploration, national security, and shared international partnerships.”


George Abbey is Baker Botts Senior Fellow in Space Policy at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. He directs the Space Policy Program, which facilitates discussions on the future of space policy in the United States. From 1995 until 2001, he was Director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He holds the NASA Distinguished Service and the Outstanding Leadership and Exceptional Service Medals. He also served as a member of the Operations Team awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their role in the Apollo 13 Mission.

Neal Lane is the Malcolm Gillis University Professor at Rice University. He also holds appointments as Senior Fellow of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, where he is engaged in matters of science and technology policy, and in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Prior to returning to Rice University, he served in the federal government as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, from August 1998 to January 2001, and as Director of the National Science Foundation and member (ex officio) of the National Science Board, from October 1993 to August 1998. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, serving as a member of both the Academy’s Council and the Committee on International Security Studies.