After many months of delays, the Obama Administration quietly released Thursday afternoon a new National Space Transportation Policy. This is an update to the former space transportation policy developed during the Bush Administration and completed in late 2004. Both documents outline policy in regards of civil, national security, and commercial launch activities in the United States.
Many of the central tenets of the new policy are the same or similar as the 2004 policy (which, in turn, retained those of previous national policies.) These include assured access to space; use of US vehicle to launch US government payloads, with certain exceptions; and support for commercial space transportation in the United States. There are updates to the new policy to reflect NASA’s direction to develop “a heavy-lift space transportation system” (the Space Launch System is not mentioned by name in the new document) as well as commercial crew transportation systems and “other related capabilities” like on-orbit refueling and advanced in-space transportation systems.
A few other differences between the two policies worth noting:
The new policy emphasizes allowing for new entrants for launching US government payloads. The 2004 policy stated that, for “the foreseeable future, the capabilities developed under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program shall be the foundation for access to space” for intermediate and larger government payloads. The new policy simply calls for “to the maximum extent practicable, the availability of at least two U.S. space transportation vehicle families” without mentioning EELV by name. Both policies allowed for the introduction of new vehicles “that demonstrate the ability to reliably launch” such payloads, but the new policy specifically mentions the use of “established interagency new entrant certification criteria” for such vehicles, and any changes to such criteria would have to be coordinated between the National Security Advisor and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The 2004 policy played up the development of “operationally responsive” launch systems, part of the push at the time for the broader concept of operationally responsive space. “Before 2010, the United States shall demonstrate an initial capability for operationally responsive access to and use of space to support national security requirements,” the 2004 policy stated. The new policy deemphasizes this, directing the Secretary of Defense to work with other agencies on “launch concepts, techniques, and technologies needed for augmentation or rapid restoration of national security space capabilities” without a specific goal or deadline as in the old policy, and without using the term “operationally responsive space.”
The new policy clarifies the launch of US government hosted payloads on commercial spacecraft. Previously, there had been uncertainty if such hosted payloads required a waiver from the White House if the commercial satellite that payload was hosted on was being launched outside the United States. The new policy explicitly states that hosted payloads, as defined in the policy, are exempt from the waiver requirement and can be launched on a non-US vehicle without one.
The new policy, in its commercial space guidelines section, includes a provision not found in the older policy to “Cultivate increased technological innovation and entrepreneurship in the U.S. commercial space transportation sector through the use of incentives such as nontraditional acquisition arrangements, competition, and prizes.” This mostly endorses current activities (notably NASA’s Commercial Crew Program); there are no current plans for space transportation prizes, although the FAA did propose a “Low Cost Access to Space” prize in 2011 that was not funded.