Obama space policy prizes international cooperation

President Obama's national space policy, released Monday, focuses more on international approaches to space issues than previous presidents' policies.

By , Staff writer

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    Astronaut Michael Good, STS-132 mission specialist, is seen from the space shuttle Atlantis working during the flight's final space walk at the International Space Station on May 21.
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Somewhere, Gene Roddenberry -- whose Star Trek franchise carried multicultural crews to cosmic destinations where no one had gone before -- is smiling.

President Obama released his administration's national space policy today. It's a document in which international cooperation on issues ranging from controlling space junk to hurling humans beyond low-Earth orbit sits as a cornerstone instead of boiler plate.

In addition, the document focuses on international issues such as arms control in space. The policy expresses the administration's willingness to "consider" arms control agreements in space, a position held by several of Mr. Obama's predecessors, but one dropped during the George W. Bush presidency.

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The policy "is not a revolutionary document," said a senior administration official during a briefing this afternoon. It represents a great deal of continuity with past administrations' national space policies, he said.

Still, some analysts have been struck by both the document's tone and its increased emphasis on international approaches to a range of space-related issues.

That change reflects growth in the number of countries relying on satellites in space for communications, navigation, disaster-relief coordination, as well as national security. And it reflects the growth in spacefaring nations -- those capable of launching satellites and astronauts into orbit. Space is no longer the geopolitical playpen for two cold-war superpowers.

The increased focus on international cooperation "is essential to bringing the benefits of space to the greatest number of people on the planet," says Eliott Pulham, who heads the Space Foundation, a Colorado-based non-partisan organization supporting human expansion into space.

The new policy has some rough edges, he adds – in particular the administration's plan for NASA, which "would defer human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit for 15 years, to 2025, essentially ceding US leadership in human space exploration."

Still, the document has much to recommend, Pulham says, putting emphasis on beefing up the commercial spaceflight sector, as well as extending US participation in the International Space Station to 2020 instead of cutting it off at 2015, as the Bush administration envisioned.

Indeed, the contrast with past space policies is perhaps the sharpest with that of former President Bush, who unveiled his administration's guiding principles for US space policy in 2006, during his second term.

Bush's was in many ways a "prickly," confrontational document, says Ray Williamson, executive director of the Secure World Foundation in Superior, Colo. "It was: Stay away from our satellites or else. And: We're not going to brook any interference with our ability to get to space."

Obama's policy also carries a warning that Washington will use "a variety of measures" to deter or respond to attacks on US space systems or those of US allies "consistent with the inherent right of self defense."

But it also recognizes that all nations hold the right of passage through space or to "conduct space operations" without interferences from other countries.

The Obama document "is much more: Hey guys, we've got to work things out because we're dealing with a global commons," Mr. Williamson says.

And that commons must be used sustainably – a seemingly odd concept given the vastness of the cosmos. But the inadvertent collision of two satellites in 2009, along with a Chinese anti-satellite test in 2007, highlighted the need to reduce space debris.

Everything from spent rocket boosters to wayward astronaut toolkits can remain on orbit long enough to threaten satellites or the international space station. Even if no active satellite is threatened, one derelict on orbit can smack into another, creating potentially dangerous debris.

Senior administration officials noted in a briefing Monday that efforts to improve "space situational awareness" – knowing where all the satellites are in their orbits and where space junk is hurtling, and sharing that information with other countries with assets on orbit – can serve as confidence-building measures for more international agreements on space-traffic management and future broader agreements on space governance.

Such efforts can help reduce flash points for conflicts back on Terra Firma, one official says. A transparent system for tracking debris and active spacecraft, sharing that information, and providing timely warnings of potential collisions can "mitigate the risk of mishaps, misperceptions, and miscalculations."

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