On Monday, a panel of experts discussed the space policy issues that will be at the forefront of the Obama Administration’s second term at an event organized by the Secure World Foundation. There are, as one might expect, no shortage of challenges facing NASA, the White House, Congress, and other players in space policy, from budgets to strategy to international cooperation. A few key items that emerged from the discussion:
Budgets and strategy: A key near-term concern is what will happen to the budgets for NASA and other federal agencies with space activities, given the looming “fiscal cliff” and future budgets that are likely to be, at best, constrained. “The one certainty is that the budget situation is going to be pretty grim going forward,” said Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline.com. In particular, she warned NASA’s current plans, put into place by the 2010 authorization act, to develop both the Space Launch System/Orion and commercial crew vehicles is not affordable over the long term. “I don’t know if we’re looking at a train wreck that’s going to happen in the next year or two, or if we’re just going to end up stretching out programs.”
Such decisions will require better relations between the administration and Congress, Smith said. “The most important thing the Obama Administration is going to have to do is to continue working to reestablish trust with Congress,” she said. Relations have improved since 2010, “but I still sense that there is a little bit of nervousness on the part of Congress as to whether or not NASA is really committed to SLS and Orion, and whether or not they’re going to proceed with that program with the same vigor that they want to pursue commercial crew.” She added there’s still “a sense of unease” about NASA’s strategic direction, such as whether a human asteroid mission should remain a long-term space exploration goal.
Culture changes needed: Another key issue in a resource-constrained era is a willingness to adopt alternative approaches to doing business. One example is hosted payloads, where government agencies place payloads (communications transponders, scientific instruments, and so on) on commercial spacecraft. “Almost everyone agrees that hosted payloads… is a good idea,” said Patricia Cooper of the Satellite Industry Association. But hosted payloads pose challenges to the conventional way of doing business. “The administrative and programmatic bureaucracy and structure” of government agencies remain a barrier to more widespread use of hosted payloads, she said.
Similarly, Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation noted that the military has made considerable investments in new capabilities in the area of space situational awareness (SSA), but is lagging in the “backend” of processing the data coming from various SSA sensors to identify potential collisions. The data processing challenges of SSA are minor compared to what’s in use already in the private sector by major Internet firms, but the military doesn’t appar open to alternative approaches from the commercial sector. “The institution and the culture are not able to deal with this kind of challenge,” he said of the military’s approach to SSA data analysis. “If you gave that problem to Google or Facebook, their interns could do it over the summer for a couple million dollars.”
Dealing with China: China is often considered the US’s biggest threat in space, but some panelists tried to play down a Sino-American space rivalry. “There is probably an overemphasis when we look at China to really think it’s about us, and and it’s not about us. It’s about them, and it’s about them in the region,” said Scott Pace of the Space Policy Institute. China’s growing space capabilities are a bigger issue in the Asia-Pacific region, including for countries like Japan and India.
China, Pace added, is seeking greater international cooperation, which others suggested could open new opportunities for cooperation with the US. “I would see forthcoming, maybe in the next four years of the Obama Administration, an opening on a government-to-government cooperative basis for space cooperation between the US and China,” said Eligar Sadeh of Astroconsulting International. “China really is looking for the United States to take the initiative and lead” on space cooperation between the two nations.
No code: Broader international cooperation, in the form of a code of conduct for outer space activities, is looking unlikely in the near future despite the support of the Obama Administration, panelists suggested. “It’s a good idea in principle,” Pace said. “However, I believe it’s largely dead.” Pace said the proposed code suffered from a lack of trust among developing space powers. “The diplomatic aspect of that has been so badly fumbled that I don’t really think there’s a prospect right now for how to move forward with it.” Another issue, Pace added, was domestic concerns about the code being the basis of a broader space arms control accord.
Weeden wasn’t quite as willing to write off the proposed code, calling it only “mostly dead,” but agreed its prospects weren’t good. “The problem is that the US isn’t driving the train on this, the European Union is,” he said. “There’s not a lot that the US can do to address some of the issues” with it. Even if there isn’t a code, he added, there is value in having international discussions on topics related to it to exchange various perspectives.