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Space policy
"Dibs" in space

The Bush administration released its new National Space Policy on Oct. 6, marking the first revisions to the country’s overarching space policy in 10 years. The new policy places strong emphasis on maintaining America’s “freedom of action” in space — a more unilateral stance that could test international treaty boundaries and ultimately be harmful to U.S. diplomatic relations with other nations, some analysts say.

The National Space Policy outlines how the country plans to conduct itself during space activities, which can include promoting both economic and research interests, such as improved information flow, weather forecasting and human exploration, and also promoting national security. Such space activities often rely heavily on the use of satellites for weather forecasting, cell phone service and GPS navigation, as well as military navigation and communications.

The previous policy, released in 1996 during the Clinton administration, paved the way for the development of space weapons, but also was concerned with civil and commercial uses for space, and was “couched more in terms of the global commons,” says Michael Krepon, a space policy analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The 2006 policy focuses largely on military applications, and “there are some interesting additions and some interesting deletions,” Krepon says. “For one thing, there’s no mention of arms control, or any variation that will limit U.S. freedom of action in space. So that’s a big change.”

Henry Hertzfeld, a space policy analyst at George Washington University, says that the changes are primarily “in tone rather than in substance.” Much of the focus of the new document appears to be national security and defense, which has drawn some criticism, Hertzfeld says. He notes that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which released the unclassified 10-page report, has issued other space policy documents that specifically cover other plans for space activities, including human exploration, transportation, remote sensing and navigation. However, he says, “this one is viewed as the overall national space policy,” and therefore other nations are taking closer notice of its wording.

One section that has specifically attracted criticism, says Ray Williamson, a space policy analyst also at George Washington University, is the Principles section of the new policy, which states that “the United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.” The section further rejects any future proposed arms control agreements and restrictions that might impair the United States’ ability to conduct research or perform other activities in space in its national interests.

That aggressive stance promotes a stark contrast between the use of diplomacy and force to create security in space, Krepon says. It also highlights the indefensibility of remote equipment such as space satellites to hostile attacks, he says. Such satellites, which have become an integral part of modern life and can be life-saving, whether for completing 911 calls or for providing crucial information for disaster relief, are “unavoidably vulnerable,” he says. “It’s not like you can armor them like a tank.”

Carolyn Gramling

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