US Space Policy Should Aim to Preserve Advantage on the New Frontier

Artist's conception of exploration during a manned mission to Mars.

NASA

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Artist's conception of exploration during a manned mission to Mars.

As in the 19th-century American West, the government must recognize its limited yet crucial role in fostering the nation’s interests in space.

The administration of Donald Trump is the first of the 21st century to not be entirely preoccupied by issues of terrorism and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such conditions provide opportunities to dedicate some time to taking a longer view and consider new strategic options and emerging areas of international competition. Initial actions by the Trump White House show the space domain to be an area of heightened focus. For example: for the first time in 24 years, the Vice President convened the National Space Council, composed of five cabinet secretaries and an equal number of senior government directors and administrators, to consider the nation’s future course in space.

The timing is propitious. New commercial entities have emerged to create a vibrant, competitive marketplace in the space sector. Innovations such as micro-satellites and recoverable first-stage rockets promise opportunities to move beyond basic exploration and experimentation in “the new frontier.” The Trump administration should seize this chance to foster the full exploitation of space as a commercial domain.

Vice President Pence and the National Space Council would be well advised to draw lessons from an earlier turning point in American history. Shortly after Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase, he dispatched the famed Lewis and Clark expedition on a “first finder” mission to identify the key rivers, wildlife, and other basic resources in the new territory. These discoveries drew settlers and the Army westward, establishing forts and settlements along the way. Presently the federal government, through a series of payments, bond issues, and land grants, encouraged the Union Pacific and Central Pacific companies to build the first transcontinental railroad line. Yet it was not this central trunk that truly opened the west, but rather the northern and southern lines that soon branched from it. Built and operated by smaller railroad companies, these lines at last linked the west economically with the east, enabling the rise of the United States as a global power.

During the United States’ first fifty years of space exploration, it accomplished a series of manned and unmanned first-finder missions, from low earth orbit to beyond the boundaries of the solar system, blazing a trail, much as Lewis and Clark did, for others to follow. The International Space Station, built by the United States and partner nations, now serves as the earth terminus and first of many stations to come as humans begin to stretch out across space. The question before the nation, in the face of so many new commercial capabilities, is: What will be the proper role of government in this second era of the Space Age?

If the government follows precedent, it will confine its civil role to research, development, and first-finder exploration missions to areas where there is no current financial inducement for commercial investment. Government can also more directly help commercial space endeavors by providing financial incentives in the form of tax breaks, limited monopolies, and access to government-sponsored research.

The government ought also to lay down broad and expansive interpretations of the governing 1967 Outer Space Treaty to encourage and protect profit-seeking companies in outer space. The treaty prohibits signatory nations from claiming celestial bodies such as the moon, asteroids, and planets, and it charges each signatory with regulating non-governmental entities (i.e., commercial companies) and their activities in space. So while no nation could claim a resource-rich asteroid as a sovereign acquisition, as Spain once claimed Florida, the treaty does empower a nation to regulate its companies’ activities, such as mining mineral resources from that asteroid. By providing regulations that encourage rather than restrict the commercial exploitation of space, the U.S. government can help to establish a virtuous capitalistic cycle between space and earth-based commercial entities. The U.S. should encourage these interpretations beyond domestic policies and inspire international consensus.

There is an old saying that “the flag follows trade,” which is to say that once national commercial profits are established, the military tends to position itself to safeguard those interests. While it is true that the United States’ initial outward movements into space were peaceful in intent and focus — after all, when the nation went to the moon, it went “for all mankind” — one cannot reasonably expect such sentiments to be shared by all nations. The United States ought to be prepared to defend the resources being developed in space by force, as it is prepared to defend the high seas today. Much as the Army established forts across the American west, the United States should consider an independent Space Force established at key positions — in low-earth and geosynchronous orbits, at LaGrange points, around and upon the Moon — to insure that space remains a part of the global commons. Such forces should be an extension of units within the current Air Force, which already commands space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets that support earthbound air, naval, and ground forces.

As the authors argue in their new report for the Center for a New American Security, a space policy for in this second era of the Space Age ought to abandon old paradigms of government-led expansion. Instead, the Trump administration should limit its funding for space missions to initial exploration. It ought also to promulgate regulations that encourage the commercial exploitation of space-based ores and minerals both on Earth and in space, where they can support further development and expansion. It should also begin to position the national security apparatus to protect and support a space-based commons where all might operate safely. Such policies would unleash the full innovative potential of the American commercial sector and help the nation once again emerge as the leader in mankind’s expansion across the solar system.

Most importantly, the Trump administration needs to adjust U.S. space policy as a matter of primacy. Right now, the United States has considerable advantages over other spacefaring nations. However, if the U.S. government does not adjust its space policy, the country will fall behind as others moves through this critical junction between capability and capacity, and the first country to put footprints on the moon will lose its ability to define the future of humanity’s place in, and use of, outer space. 

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