American Space Strategy: Choose to Steer, Not Drift
Image Credit: Wikicommons

American Space Strategy: Choose to Steer, Not Drift


Space activities today play critical roles in United States national security, economic growth, and scientific achievements.  The Global Positioning System is an integral part of several critical infrastructures and enables functions ranging from survey and construction, to farming, finance, and air traffic management – not to mention supporting U.S. military forces worldwide.  The International Space Station represents a unique, collaborative partnership between the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan, and Russia.  At the same time, new threats to U.S. space activities have emerged, threats that are different from those of the Cold War.  In some cases, threats come from a known nation state while in others it is impossible to attribute responsibility.

In 2007, China tested a high altitude anti-satellite weapon against one of its old weather satellites, creating tens of thousands of pieces of orbital debris and increasing the risk of collision and damage to many satellites, and the International Space Station, operating in low Earth orbit.  Just recently, on January 22, a piece of debris from that test appears to have damaged a Russian scientific satellite.  In 2009, there was an accidental collision over the Arctic between a defunct Russian communications satellite and an active commercial communications satellite that added even more orbital debris to low Earth orbit.  North Korea has defied numerous UN Security Council sanctions in developing ballistic missile capabilities, which it portrays as peaceful space launches.  Similarly, the Islamic Republic of Iran has continued to jam commercial satellites that broadcast foreign news services into the country as a means of preventing these reports from reaching the Iranian people.

The global space community is a dynamic one with new capabilities and new entrants, particularly in Asia.  China has flown several astronauts, becoming only the third country with independent human access to space.  China is constructing a space laboratory and has demonstrated unmanned rendezvous and docking operations in preparation for a fully manned space station in 2020 – about the time the International Space Station may be ending its operations.  Japan has announced plans to sell radar satellites to Vietnam while South Korea is seeking to sell an optical imaging satellite to the United Arab Emirates.  Brazil and China are continuing many years of space cooperation in remote sensing while India and South Africa are close to concluding their own space cooperation agreement.  All of these countries recognize that space capabilities are important for both practical and symbolic reasons and that these capabilities are intrinsically “dual-use” in that civil, security, and commercial applications are based on similar technologies.

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A Flaw in U.S. National Space Policy

The current U.S. space policy is outlined in the July 2010 U.S. National Space Policy that addresses the full range of U.S. interests in space. The policy continues many long-standing principles, such as the right of all nations to engage in the peaceful uses of outer space, recognition of the inherent right of self-defense, and that purposeful interference with space systems is an infringement of a nation’s rights.  The policy also states that the United States “recognizes the need for stability in the space environment” and that it will pursue “bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence building measures to encourage responsible actions in space.”

In testimony to Congress last December, to the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics in December of last year, I observed that the civil space exploration section of the 2010 National Space Policy did not match the coherence found on the national security and foreign policy side.  The NASA Administrator is directed to “set far-reaching exploration milestones.  By 2025, begin crewed missions beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid.”  There seems to have been little interagency debate about these goals.  Rather, they seem to have been taken intact from an April 15, 2010 speech President Obama gave at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Subsequent analysis by NASA and the scientific community has unfortunately shown that there are few to no scientifically attractive, technically feasible asteroids that can be reached by humans on this schedule.

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