United States Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities Gone Astray

The Fourth Barrier: A Loss of International Cooperation

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George Abbey and Neal Francis Lane
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

In our 2005 paper, we expressed our deep concern that other nations, including U.S. partners in the ISS, were not being invited to join the United States as true partners in the early planning stages of future human space-exploration missions. President Bush, in his speech of January 14, 2004, seemed to invite other nations to share the challenges and opportunities of his vision and the new era of discovery.35 However, NASA leadership subsequently contradicted that promise when then-NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe stated that the new space initiative was “very much going to be a U.S.-led endeavor. That’s our intent. And, again, much of what we had been directed and what the president envisions we do is to achieve this set of American, U.S. exploration objectives.”36 O’Keefe’s statement left little room for ambiguity about the role of future international cooperation. We stated in our earlier paper that, given the present limited U.S. capability to undertake such a major program as returning human beings to the moon and sending them to Mars, international cooperation clearly would be necessary for these missions. Thus, excluding potential international partners at the outset all but assured that the president’s vision could not be fulfilled.

That was 2005, before the federal deficit grew to an expected trillion dollars in 2009, before the country was faced with an economic crisis the likes of which had not been seen since the 1930s. Since 2005, the nation has also become more aware of the difficulty of providing energy security and coping with the threats of climate change and the consequent domestic security, foreign policy, and economic challenges. These critical issues will all impact the budget and will necessitate the prioritization of available funding. International cooperation, in today’s environment, has become even more of a necessity for human missions to the moon and Mars.

Forming international partnerships does not exclude national objectives; indeed, on balance, it often helps nations meet their objectives. But effective partnerships do require a sharing of vision, objectives, and commitments from the beginning of the enterprise. The United States cannot expect other nations to participate enthusiastically and to provide the necessary staffing, share technologies and skills, and help with funding without that early involvement. Our conversations in 2005 and more recently with scientists, engineers, and policy-makers around the world have confirmed what seemed apparent at the time VSE was announced: the United States during the Bush administration made no effort to bring other nations into the planning process, but expected them to take on the operation of the ISS and to provide assistance for other U.S.-led space efforts if asked. Instead, the Bush administration made the VSE program about national security and, as a result, discouraged any degree of international cooperation on the effort. In our view, America does not have a future in the peaceful uses of space—human space exploration, space science, or commercial space activities—without that degree of international cooperation.

In our 2005 report we noted that the issue most threatening the continuation of U.S. cooperation in space might well be a growing international perception that the United States intends to control space militarily. In 2005 the United States had accelerated its efforts to put in place a questionable missile-defense system. The decision had been made apparently without any international consultation and before adequate research and development had shown the feasibility of such a system. This action suggested that the United States was impatient to signal to the rest of the world that it intends to treat space differently in the future than it has in the past. Many members of Congress who have been advocating for a missile-defense system for several decades heartily endorsed the decision. Powerful industrial interests are also at stake.

Missile defense is only one aspect of U.S. interest in the increased military use of space. The Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, published in 2001, identified the importance of space to national security and outlined a series of recommendations for the future of military space activities. The report proposed, among other things, that the military vigorously pursue capabilities that would enable the president to deploy weapons in space “to deter threats to and, if necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests.”37

This proposal represented a departure from President Kennedy’s vision of 1962, when he vowed, “We shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”38 In our 2005 report we stated that placing offensive weapons in space would be a cause for alarm throughout the world and would create a major obstacle to international cooperation in space. American companies could expect an even more restrictive U.S. export control policy. Such restrictions could further damage commercial space activities and preclude the willingness of other nations to join U.S.-led programs for both human and robotic space science and exploration missions.

The placement of weapons in space would reinforce in the world community the feeling that the United States is increasingly basing its foreign policy on unilateral initiatives. As such, it would severely impact the progress that has been made over the last fifty years toward multilateral international cooperation. The Cold War is over, but the critical national security component of the next generation of spacecraft is being used as the basis for the United States having second-to-none space superiority and going its own way in pursuit of a lunar and Mars program.

In 2007, Joan Johnson-Freese addressed this attitude and its impact in her book, Space as a Strategic Asset. “Unfortunately, between fears about U.S. intentions to weaponize space, constraints on American companies’ abilities to act as reliable and rational aerospace business partners, and the United States potentially backing out of international commitments like the ISS, the U.S. leadership image has taken a beating.”39 She proposed an alternative approach:

In the 1960s, leadership was the motivation that took the United States to the moon, as the country wanted to show itself as the winner in a technology-based competition against the Soviet Union. It was a techno-nationalist show of prowess. Today, post–September 11 and equally or more important, with the ongoing war in Iraq, the United States needs to again recognize and embrace the leadership opportunity offered by manned space exploration but this time based on cooperation, not competition. Leading an international inclusive expedition from earth allows the United States to counter its unilateralist militarist image, which has prevailed due to both the Iraq war and U.S. moves toward space weaponization. Such a choice would go a long way toward rebuilding American soft power by positively leading the world on a global endeavor to step into space together for exploration development and applications useful on earth. It is the ultimate positive “big event” strategic communication message of leadership. From the global participants’ side, taking part in a grand space program does more than just help countries construct technology and create industries; it builds dreams and generates pride. Working cooperatively with other countries on a space venture
would also alleviate fears about U.S. intentions to monopolize space.40

The benefits of international cooperation in space, as opposed to competing militarily in space, are no better exemplified than by U.S. cooperation with Russia, its former Cold War antagonist. The benefit of U.S.-Russian cooperation is summarized in Susan Eisenhower’s book, Partners in Space. She writes:

U.S.-Russian cooperation in space since the end of the Cold War has brought significant technological and economic benefits, while strengthening national security. The cooperation achieved an unprecedented degree of interdependence (with Russia’s role on the critical path to space station completion) and provided much needed redundancy in the post-Columbia support of space station operations. In bringing Russia into the partnership the United States enhanced national security, as well as international security by strengthening the non-proliferation of rocket technology through the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). It also contributed to the establishment of a strategic partnership, so needed now in the war on terrorism.

Eisenhower goes on to state, “The joint work on the space station brought indispensable experience in building, through cooperation, a large scale international project, which may serve as the stepping stone to the next level of space exploration with potentially even broader international participation. It has also provided a model for other areas of cooperation.”41

Rose Gottemoeller, a noted expert in Russian studies and President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation, has stated the U.S.-Russian human spaceflight relationship unquestionably should be the model for all U.S. cooperative activities with Russia. Unfortunately, in recent years that has not been the case. Actions initiated as a result of VSE have seriously damaged cooperation on international programs such as the ISS. The United States has had to rely on the Europeans and Japanese—who have made substantial investments in the space station and have finally installed their own research modules on the station—to meet U.S. commitments and continue as partners in the space station enterprise. Otherwise, their planned research would be in jeopardy.

Unless this unfortunate situation is reversed, potential international partners will think twice before joining the United States in future large-scale endeavors. Obama can change the “go it alone” policies of the previous administration by restructuring the exploration program to make it a truly cooperative international effort and ensuring that the ISS, as Susan Eisenhower has predicted, serves as the stepping stone to the next level of space exploration with potentially even broader international participation.

However, even with the best intentions of the Obama administration, the cooperation that Joan Johnson-Freese, Susan Eisenhower, and Rose Gottemoeller all advocate will not be possible if the export control regulations (ITAR) and other restrictive policies currently in place are allowed to stand. U.S. export controls and international cooperation in space activities are closely linked. The ISS and the space shuttle program, as well as many of the successful robotic science missions, were accomplished with considerable international involvement and the relatively free exchange of data and (nonmilitary) technical information with partner nations. The ISS could not have been successful under any other conditions.

The NRC’s report Beyond ‘Fortress America’ calls for a complete revision of the nation’s export control regulations and asks the new administration to promptly revise export control policies by issuing an executive order that affirms “a strong presumption for openness.”42 (President Ronald Reagan signed just such an order during his administration.) The implementation of the report’s recommendations would facilitate NASA’s restructuring of its human space-exploration program with international partnerships.

President Obama, in his speech to the National Academy of Sciences on April 27, 2009, spoke of the need for international cooperation: “We also need to work with our friends around the world. Science, technology and innovation proceed more rapidly and more cost-effectively when insights, costs and risks are shared; and so many of the challenges that science and technology will help us meet are global in character.”43


35. Bush, “Remarks by the President.”

36. Sean O’Keefe, “Press Conference on the Future Vision for Exploration,” Washington, D.C., January 14, 2004, http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/54876main_okeefe_transcript_04012004.pdf.

37. Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (2001), http://www.fas.org/spp/military/commission/report.htm.

38. John F. Kennedy, “Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort,” September 12, 1962.

39. Joan Johnson-Freese, Space as a Strategic Asset (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

40. Ibid.

41. Susan Eisenhower, Partners in Space: US-Russian Cooperation after the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: The Eisenhower Institute, 2004).

42. National Research Council, Beyond ‘Fortress America.’

43. Obama, “Remarks by the President.”