What is so worrisome about the new Obama space policy goals, released in the New Space Policy document on June 28th -- especially those programs related to the internationalization of American space power -- is that they create opportunities for those who would undermine this power. The objective of these people, has long been to ensnare Washington in a net of agreements, policies and treaties. Eventually these will make it impossible for the US to project force without passing first through what Senator John Kerry (D, MA) called a "Global Test, " which is to say getting the approval of the international elite for anything that requires the use or even the threat of force. In fifty years or less, we will have transitioned from a global economy to one that is beginning to encompass the Solar System; the only question is whether the US will lead the way and embed its values out there, or whether they will be someone else's.
When the Obama administration released its report, most of the media stressed that the president was reaching out for an unprecedented level of "Global Cooperation" -- supposedly in contrast to the Bush administration's "unilateralist approach to space." This simplistic and limited view of the facts may fit within the mindset of the mainstream media, but it clashes not only with the historic facts, but also with political realities.
For decades, America's space programs have been used to project power of both the hard and soft varieties. Allies have long benefited from indirect, and, in rare cases from direct access to the Defense Department's various space systems. Throughout the world, every minute of every day, people use the Global Positioning System (GPS) signals, most of the time without even realizing that they come from a set of US military satellites. In the civilian realm the International Space Station which is now almost complete has been largely built and paid for by US taxpayers.
This is particularly important in dealing with issues surrounding the future of the GPSl, which has become the de facto world wide standard for what are termed Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and timing purposes. While Russia, China and Europe are all trying to build rival constellations, the GPS system which now includes more than 30 satellites, will, if it not wrecked by budget cuts or policy mistakes, continue to be the best and most effective and most reliable system. It is also essential for US military operations. If US control over the system is compromised, this will result in other nations having an effective veto over US military operations. The new space policy does not, directly, aim at this result, but it does order the US government to "Engage with foreign GNSS providers to encourage compatibility and interoperability, promote transparency in civil service provision and, and enable market access for US industry. "
The key phrase here is "civil service provision." This seems to refer to the "Publicly Regulated Signal (PRS)," which is the lightly disguised military aspect of Europe's Galileo satellite navigation project. In the early years of this program, the Europeans wanted to entwine the GPS military signals with those the PRS, thereby preventing the US from using its own system without European cooperation. Fortunately, he State Department and the Defense Department were able to stop this "overlay" problem dead in its tracks with the signing, in 2004, of a formal deconfliction agreement. It appears as if the US side may now be ready to reopen this question.
The contradictions of the administration's space proposals are nowhere better seen than in the way that NASA is treated. The attempt to cancel the Constellation program, the goal of which was to return permanently to the Moon before going on the Mars has, for now, shown that those foreign space agencies and leaders who had advised their political masters to stay out of the US program were right in saying that the US was an unreliable partner. Do NASA or the White House really believe that their new offers of cooperation will not be met with the same - or perhaps an even greater measure of skepticism about America's commitment to long term space exploration? The current bitter and angry debate over the future of Constellation and the rest of the US manned space program is something with which no sane foreign space agency wants to get involved.
As American space leadership is an inescapable fact of international life, this naturally gives rise to resentment and envy among the nation's rivals and foes. For roughly half a century, the US government has made it a principal goal to, as the Eisenhower administration put it in a classified policy document from December 1959, "seek to increase international cooperation in selected activities relating to the peaceful exploration and use of outer space ... " Ike's people made sure to add that "International arrangements for cooperation in outer space activities should consider the net advantage to U.S. security."
The space policy claims that the administration is committed to American space leadership, yet by its actions so far, it has undermined that leadership and put this county on a path to becoming a second rate space power. Previous administrations have got to share some of the blame for this, particularly in the Nixon-Ford-Carter era when the Saturn V Moon rocket program was cancelled and the Shuttle was starved of development funding. For the most part, the best that can be said of this new policy is that it could have been worse.
There is also the strong possibility that relatively uncontroversial international space science programs will see their budgets cut by the next congress. Constellation was an essential part of the delicate political balance that NASA had achieved. The attempt to destroy it, whether it succeeds or not, has endangered all of NASA's programs. Anything with the label "international" will now be a ripe target for budget cutters, after all foreign space scientists do not vote in US elections.
This could happen in spite of NASA's traditional "No exchange of funds" principal, whereby the space agency never pays for any foreign hardware or services but only acquires them in exchange for something from the US side. For example, Italy has provided the US with a number of pressurized modules for the Space Station in exchange for the US flying Italian astronauts on the Space Shuttle and for giving Italian scientists access to experimental facilities on the station.
There have been exceptions, the late 1990s NASA did provide the Russians with some cash to help finish the first space station modules. There was a good deal of suspicious activity surrounding these payments and few people in Washington want to repeat the experience. Trying to manipulate another nation's space policy is not something to be done lightly.
It is difficult to underestimate the harm that Administrator Charles Bolden did to NASA when he told the Al Jeezera network on July 1st that outreach to the Muslim world is now an important NASA priority. As Charles DeGaulle once put it, " Towards the complicated Middle East. I flew with simple ideas." ( "Vers L'Orient compliqué, je volais avec des idées simples.") Even diplomats who have spent a lifetime working in that area have to watch carefully every word they say in both public and private. There is a fine line between flattering one's hosts and groveling before them. Bolden seems to have stepped over it, or at least to have come very close.
For all Presidents since Lyndon Johnson, the primary task of all NASA administrator is "Don't embarrass the President." The same applies to all senior officials; but due to its small size and to its symbolic importance, this is particularly true for NASA. Unfortunately for the leadership at the space agency, they have now done it twice: first with the disastrous roll-out of the proposal to cancel Constellation and replace it with an ill-defined dog's breakfast of concepts and plans; and now with clumsy attempt to deploy NASA's soft power, its ability to show the world spectacular and peaceful examples of America's technological and scientific accomplishments.
The Bush National Space Policy document of August 2006 states that "The United States will seek to cooperate with other nations in the peaceful use of outer space to extend the benefits of space, enhance space exploration, and to protect and promote freedom around the world." It was a bit more idealistic than the 1959 version, but not at all incompatible with it -- or for that matter with the Clinton era goal to "Promote international cooperation to further domestic, national security and foreign policies." The consistent theme of US space policy has been to use international cooperation as one tool -- among others -- to enhance American national power.
Rebuilding America's space power in the 21st century is not going to be cheap or easy, but it is absolutely essential if we care about preserving our security and our values.