Will 2010 Be the Year of Space Policy?

Will 2010 Be the Year of Space Policy?

On the morning of Christmas Eve, the Senate finally adjourned after passing its version of the health care reform bill, wrapping up the first session of the 111th Congress. As one of its last acts, the Senate passed the commercial space launch liability bill, one of only a handful of space-related bills to be considered in 2009. (See our freshly updated fact sheet on major space-related legislation in the 111th Congress.)

Will 2010 be the year of space policy? Many expect President Obama to make decisions about the future of the U.S. human space flight program and hopefully on much broader space policy issues in both the civil and national security arenas. Congress reportedly is working on a NASA authorization bill, and NASA’s appropriators made clear in the Consolidated Appropriations Act that they intend on having a say in the future of the Constellation program. The intelligence authorization bill is in limbo at least in part because of a dispute over what new spy satellites should be developed.

Of the four governmental space-policy related studies initiated in 2009, only one has been publicly released — the “Augustine committee” report Seeking a Human Space Flight Program Worthy of a Great Nation. The other three are:

DOD’s Quadrennial Defense Review also is underway, which is likely to impact DOD space activities.

The Obama Administration has demonstrated that in-depth review and analysis is its style, not quick decisions. One can hardly fault them for that, but the wait can be frustrating, especially with such critical issues to be decided.

Glimpses have emerged of some of the features that will frame an Obama space policy: more international cooperation and greater focus on commercial space activities appear to be key elements. Dick Buenneke, Deputy Director for Space Policy at the State Department, provided other nuggets in a November 17 speech at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. In particular, he pointed the audience to a U.S. statement to the United Nations General Assembly that laid out fundamental U.S. policies that he said were shared with allies in Europe and Canada:

  • Reject any limitations on the fundamental right of the United States to operate in, and acquire data from, space;
  • Conduct United States space activities in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international cooperation and understanding;
  • Highlight the responsibility of states to avoid harmful interference to other nations’ peaceful exploration and use of outer space;
  • Take a leadership role in international fora to promote policies and practices aimed at debris mimimization and preservation of the space environment; and
  • Support for the inherent right of individual or collection self-defense, as reflect in the UN charter.

Mr. Buenneke went on to discuss what he labeled as three “c’s” of space — congested, complex, and contested — that illustrate the challenges facing policy makers.

Rumor has it that most of the studies are completed and the subject of intense discussions behind the scenes. We will certainly know more when the FY2011 budget request is released in early February (as some say, rightly or wrongly budgets ARE policy). Whether we learn anything in the intervening weeks only time will tell. Much work needs to be done to ensure — to expand upon the title of the Augustine committee report — a U.S. space program worthy of a great nation.

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