Secrecy News

An Assertive New National Space Policy

Updated Below

The Bush Administration has issued a new National Space Policy that stresses unilateral American freedom of action in space. The new policy is intended to “enable unhindered U.S. operations in and through space to defend our interests there.”

The policy affirms “the use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity.”

But it declares that the United States will “take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.”

The policy, which supersedes a 1996 Presidential Decision Directive, was almost certainly promulgated in a National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD), which has not been publicly disclosed. Instead, a ten page unclassified summary was released late last week.

In large part, the new policy tracks closely with the previous Clinton policy. But it also departs from it in significant and surprising ways.

The previous policy prudently reserved judgment “on the feasibility and desirability of conducting further human exploration activities” beyond the International Space Station in Earth orbit.

But in a rhetorical flight of fancy, the new Bush policy purports to adopt a new national “objective of extending human presence across the solar system,” no less.

Like the earlier policy, the new policy continues to authorize the sometimes controversial use of nuclear power sources in space, but it also goes on to prescribe approval procedures for the extremely improbable scenario of “non-government spacecraft utilizing nuclear power sources.”

The 1996 policy stated that “Space nuclear reactors will not be used in Earth orbit without specific approval by the President or his designee.” This provision seemed to embrace a 1989 proposal by the Federation of American Scientists and others to ban nuclear reactors in orbit as a means of forestalling deployment of high-power orbital space weapons.

The new policy rejects that or any other infringement on unilateral U.S. freedom of action.

“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 Bush policy warns.

The new policy also addresses the problem of space debris, and the classification and declassification of space-related defense and intelligence information, among other important topics.

The text of the 1996 National Space Policy may be found here.

A September 26 NASA Notice on the development of Advanced Radioisotope Power Systems may be found here.

The FAS proposal to ban nuclear reactors in Earth orbit was introduced in “Space Reactor Arms Control” (pdf) by Joel Primack, et al, in Science and Global Security, Volume 1 (1989).

Update: The goal of “extend[ing] human presence across the solar system” is not new to this National Space Policy, but has precursors in Reagan and Bush I Administration policies, several readers point out. And the identical language appeared in the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, as noted by Jeff Foust in Space Politics.