Saturday, July 3, 2010

National Space Policy Released

President Obama's National Space Policy emphasizes collaboration in space and growing the commercial space industry.

The Obama administration revealed on June 28 the latest update of the government's National Space Policy. The last update was August 2006 during the Bush administration, and before that 1996 during the Clinton administration. The policy statement covers the nation's military and civilian space activities.

The National Space Policy is not law, of course.

According to a fact sheet issued by the White House, the policy "expresses the President’s direction for the Nation’s space activities."

The White House also issued a statement by the President.

Our policy reflects the ways in which our imperatives and our obligations in space have changed in recent decades. No longer are we racing against an adversary; in fact, one of our central goals is to promote peaceful cooperation and collaboration in space, which not only will ward off conflict, but will help to expand our capacity to operate in orbit and beyond.

One main argument by many opposed to Obama's proposed FY 2011 NASA budget is that they claim we're still in a "space race," that the Russians are our enemies, that the Chinese will soon land humans on the Moon.

The truth is that the first Bush administration in the early 1990s reached agreements with the Russians to collaborate in space, including the June 1992 Joint Statement on Cooperation in Space that set the groundwork for a series of U.S. Shuttle flights to the Russian space station Mir. American astronauts have been flying on Soyuz craft since Norm Thagard flew to Mir in March 1995.

Providing fodder for the Cold War conspiracy theorists was the revelation last week that eleven people had been arrested for allegedly spying on behalf of Russia, although it's unclear how many were actually Russian and whether they ever had access to any significant sensitive information. According to the Washington Post:

The operation, referred to by U.S. investigators as "the Illegals program," was aimed at placing spies in nongovernmental jobs, such as at think tanks, where they could glean information from policymakers and Washington-connected insiders without attracting attention.

There's some speculation this so-called "spy ring" may have been a forgotten relic from the last days of the Cold War.

In any case, all nations spy on each other just to gather intelligence. Israel has been caught spying on the United States, most infamously the Jonathan Pollard case, yet no one would deny that Israel and the U.S. have a firm alliance. We are most certainly spying on the Russians; I wouldn't be surprised if in the next few weeks the Russians round up some Americans in Moscow and eject them from the country for "spying."

As for China, they have no active human lunar program. They're more focused now on launching a space station by the early 2020s, although it appears that feelers are out for China to join the International Space Station partnership. It appears more likely that China may send robotic missions about ten years from now to sample the lunar surface and perhaps return moon rocks to Earth. You may recall the United States brought back moon rocks from 1969 to 1972, so it won't exactly be unprecedented except for the use of robotic craft — which would raise the question of why we should spent a lot of money to send humans on a dangerous and expensive mission just to collect more rocks when robots can do it more cheaply and safely.

The general consensus seems to be that Obama's policy most significantly differs from his predecessor on the subject of multilateral cooperation. This analysis appeared in Space News:

Obama’s space policy reserves America’s right to protect its space systems, but also leaves the door open to international discussions aimed at limiting space-based weapons, something the Bush administration rejected on grounds that such arrangements would be difficult if not impossible to verify. The new policy also invites outside participation in developing key technologies for deep space exploration.

"The most striking change in the new National Space Policy is the recognition of mutual interdependence among the United States and the other space-capable countries of the world," said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs here. "The policy acknowledges that the United States needs partners in making sure that space remains a sustainable environment for what this country wants to do in space, and commits the United States to take the lead in working with other countries to achieve that goal."

Logsdon said the government now formally acknowledges that the United States will be better off if it shares responsibilities and costs in many areas while still retaining a unilateral capability in critical ones.

"This shift away from unilateral leadership to leadership among partners is a sea change,” he said. “The many specific cooperative activities outlined in the policy follow from that basic recognition."

Aviation Week reported on June 27 that "Deputy Administrator Lori Garver was in Berlin last week on the first leg of a six-day trip that will also take her to Paris and Vienna. Garver said the trip is intended to explain new programs planned and solicit potential international cooperation, even though formal commitments will have to await approval of the agency’s new budget."

The article suggests the two main areas for increased cooperation are earth science reseach and the International Space Station.

A second major focus of Garver’s trip involves discussions to extend the life of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020. Europe is keen on developing a cargo return capsule based on the Automated Transfer Vehicle. A feasibility study for the concept, known as the Advanced Reentry Vehicle (ARV), is to be completed toward year-end and a development proposal could be presented in 2011/2012.

ESA envisions proposing the ARV, which would have ten times the download capacity of the Soyuz, as a replacement or complement for two additional ATVs that it could be expected to supply for the ISS extension in return for utility services.

However, ESA head Dordain says Europe will not embark on ARV development until the five ISS partners agree on common download requirements. "One thing the shuttle retirement has taught us is that we need to adopt a common approach to space transportation, from cargo download/upload to crew transport," says Dordain. ESA is circulating a common transportation policy proposal as part of the extension talks.

Some partners have reacted positively to the proposal but others, including the U.S., appear reticent, Dordain says. Garver says NASA is "in favor of common requirements" and will do all it can "to promote a more robust, redundant space transportation system."

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