With a new administration months from taking office in the United States, the space community braces for an unclear future. Might the new president put the United States’ space leadership in jeopardy? Will they significantly upend the space policy status quo?
Gauging by the reactions of political leaders, the overriding matter of concern is to preempt any potential policy change. In September, the Senate committee overseeing NASA approved a short-term agency authorization bill. In early October, President Obama wrote an op-ed endorsing his space policy legacy.
Both aim for the United States to “stay the course” in space. They affirm Mars as NASA’s destination, commit to the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft that will take human astronauts there, and seek continuity for the Commercial Cargo and Crew programs that service the International Space Station.
The presidential candidates have shared similar sentiments. In op-eds, Clinton and Trump weighed in with their goals for the space program. Sparse in specific policy substance, their pieces voice similar and familiar rhetoric: sustaining American space leadership, building up private sector capabilities, achieving bold aspirations.
Taken all together, this highlights the persistence of traditional space policy thinking – a fixation on the United States’ “big goal” in space. Where will NASA go? How will it get there?
These are significant questions which will require clear and consistent policy on the part of the new leadership. A lack of direction for the space program challenges American leadership in space.
However, the next president will find that deciding whether to “stay the course” is no longer the space policy issue that matters most. The United States’ space leadership can no longer be secure through traditional thinking alone. Outer space is no longer the domain it traditionally was.
Instead, a proliferation of foreign space actors, some adversarial, are challenging norms the United States has long worked hard to establish and protect. New commercial operators are raising serious questions about how non-traditional actors will be regulated and governed. Issues such as space debris and congestion pose a greater threat to the space environment than ever before.
The space regime is changing. A “mission to Mars” won’t preserve the status quo. To “sustain American space leadership,” the next president must prioritize addressing the pressures that now face it.
There are clear policy directions the new administration can take toward that end.
Committing to and implementing the recently issued UN guidelines on long-term space sustainability will constitute an American endorsement of updated space norms that account for new actors and current circumstances.
Actively expanding efforts with other spacefaring states to share space situational awareness data will establish a more transparent space regime and bolster the space “commons.” Working with domestic industry and international partners to codify voluntary codes of conduct, ranging from non-interference with space assets to orbital debris mitigation, will do the same.
Pressing Congress to develop legislation that deals with non-traditional commercial space activity will be necessary for laying the framework of a comprehensive regulatory regime. Consulting with partners and allies, some equally interested in fostering the commercial use of space, on regulatory standards will begin to build international confidence in and reduce uncertainty about this type of activity.
Embracing the Department of Defense’s work on satellite security and resilience will deter and disincentivize military threats to the space environment. So too will redoubling diplomatic engagement of potential adversaries about opportunities for space cooperation and expectations regarding peaceful space behavior.
Big goals for NASA and a destination debate sufficed when space was the domain of superpowers racing to land on an extraterrestrial surface. It is no longer. In the coming future, the leader in space will be the country that sets the rules of the road of 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 their space policy goals, the next president would be wise to recognize that.