United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities Gone Astray


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George Abbey and Neal Francis Lane
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

Space has long been the setting of especially intricate encounters between human aspirations and the implacable laws of the physical universe. It is a natural laboratory of fundamental science, at once the source of seminal conceptual achievements and bewildering mysteries. It has been the venue for both spectacular feats of engineering and tragic accidents. It has been the locus of uplifting collaboration among nations as well as ominous confrontation. It is an ever-compelling template on which popular imagination plays out.

The resulting array of interests, attitudes, and emotions engaged in the practical utilization of space has made that topic an especially demanding problem of public policy. Because of the risks and expense involved in space operations, the burden so far has been borne primarily by the major national governments. And those governments have been driven primarily by national security considerations, the legacy of confrontations between the two global alliances that dominated the latter half of the twentieth century. The passing of that era and the progressive expansion of commercial utilization of space have clearly created a new situation but not as yet the decisive reformulation of basic purpose and operational policy that the change of circumstance can be expected to require.

There has in fact been an argument about the basic character of the appropriate adjustment. An impulse emerging from within the United States government to dominate the utilization of space for national military advantage has been resisted by a nearly universal coalition of other countries defending the principle of equitable utilization for common benefit. If the outcome were to be directly decided by simple majority sentiment, the argument would have long since been settled. Most people when asked opt for collaboration and the pursuit of common interest; redirecting the inertia of established policy is anything but simple, however. The underlying argument involves a collision of intense convictions, and casual endorsement of common interest is often mixed with the residual fear of imperial aggression that is an enduring product of historical experience.

The appropriate balance between collaboration and confrontation in the era of globalization is an unsettled question, and the implications for space policy have not been worked out in the necessary detail. The effort to do so is demanding, and will undoubtedly take some time.

To stimulate the broad discussion that must accompany any fundamental redirection of policy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences initiated the Reconsidering the Rules of Space project in 2002. Six occasional papers have been published dealing with, respectively, the basic laws of physics that apply to all space activity (The Physics of Space Security: A Reference Manual, by David Wright, Laura Grego, and Lisbeth Gronlund, 2005); the fundamental issues of security policy (Reconsidering the Rules of Space, by Nancy Gallagher and John Steinbruner, 2008); the policies of the principal national governments (United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, by George Abbey and Neal Lane, 2005, and Russian and Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Plans in Space, by Pavel Podvig and Hui Zhang, 2008); the historical origins of China’s space program (A Place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program, 1956–2003, by Gregory Kulacki and Jeffrey G. Lewis, 2009); and a review of the European Union’s collective efforts to address space security issues (A European Approach to Space Security, by Xavier Pasco, 2009).

United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities Gone Astray is the seventh paper in this series, updating the 2005 publication by the same authors. It warns of serious misalignment of the purposes, operating principles, and resources of the U.S. space program. It notes that the announced intention to send manned missions to the moon and to Mars as virtually exclusive national ventures has not been adequately financed. As a result, most of NASA’s activities are being redirected to those specific purposes, thereby jeopardizing its broader historical functions without assuring that the projected missions can in fact be accomplished. The paper recommends a significant rebalancing of priorities to support the international space station, to extend shuttle missions through 2015, and to continue NASA’s traditional support for basic science and aeronautical engineering. It updates the 2005 assessment of impediments to a well-balanced space program, noting that export-control policies, decline in the science and engineering workforce, the state of mission planning, and the degree of international cooperation have all become more serious problems. Overall it provides an urgent appeal for fundamental reconsideration.

John D. Steinbruner
Professor of Public Policy, University of Maryland
Director, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM)
Co-Chair, Committee on International Security Studies, American Academy of Arts and Sciences