Making a Mark in Space: An Analysis of Obama's Options for a New U.S. Space Policy

By Samson, Victoria | Arms Control Today, October 2009 | Go to article overview
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Making a Mark in Space: An Analysis of Obama's Options for a New U.S. Space Policy


Samson, Victoria, Arms Control Today


The change of U.S. administrations creates the opportunity for a broad assessment of the country's space policy, starting with some basic questions.

What should the goal of national space policies be? Are they trying to ensure freedom of action for certain states and not others? Does the definition of "freedom of action" need to be updated to reflect the increasing number of space actors? Should the focus be on establishing future cooperative efforts in space, or is space being preserved just for its own sake?

The Obama administration, because of its general philosophical bent, seems likely to move toward a more multilateral approach to its space policy. Such a shift would shape the debate on space in the international community. Given roadblocks in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), however, traditional arms control routes may not be the best way to ensure the sustainability of space. International collaboration on space can still be effective, but it may require a different means to achieve the end goal of a sustainable space environment that can be used for generations to come. Formal treaties might not be the only way, or even the best, to improve space's sustainability; other mechanisms that are not legally binding could be just as effective in the long run.

Changes in Washington

The Obama administration is presently reviewing U.S. space policy. This review typically takes place during a president's second term because of the issue's relatively low priority. In this case, it seems that the Obama administration will be producing a new policy within its first term, possibly within the next year or so. Trying to predict what will end up in the policy is much like reading tea leaves. In the interim, the White House Web site has this to say about space: "The full spectrum of U.S. military capabilities depends on our space systems.... We will cooperate with our allies and the private sector to identify and protect against intentional and unintentional threats to U.S. and allied space capabilities."1 This language is a step back from what was on the White House Web site shortly after President Barack Obama was inaugurated. At that time, the site said the Obama administration would strive to achieve a ban on weapons that "interfere with military and commercial satellites." That wording has since been removed from the site, possibly because Obama's official space policy has not yet been formalized.

Earlier Obama policy papers, which fully discuss his platform for U.S. space capabilities and priorities, may give an indication of the new administration's goals for its space policy. According to presidential campaign documents released in August 2008, "Barack Obama will use space as a strategic tool of U.S. diplomacy to strengthen relations with allies, reduce future conflicts, and engage members of the developing world."2 A section headlined "Emphasizing an International, Cooperative Approach to Space Security" said that "[developing an international approach to minimizing space debris, enhancing capabilities for space situational awareness, and managing increasingly complex space operations are important steps towards sustaining our space operations."3 (Space situational awareness refers to the capacity to monitor objects orbiting the planet. The United States is currently keeping track of about 19,000 objects, down to the size of a Softball; but it is expected that hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces are on orbit, leaving expensive space assets at risk.)

The campaign documents also said that Obama "opposes the stationing of weapons in space and the development of anti-satellite weapons" and that the United States "must show leadership by engaging other nations in discussions of how best to stop the slow slide towards a new battlefield."4 Finally, they stated that Obama would "work with other nations to develop 'rules of the road' for space to ensure all nations have a common understanding of acceptable behavior.

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Making a Mark in Space: An Analysis of Obama's Options for a New U.S. Space Policy
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