WASHINGTON — The White House released Dec. 1 a document that outlines its space policy priorities, including addressing growing military threats and supporting “a rules-based international order for space.”
The seven-page United States Space Priorities Framework document, released ahead of the first meeting by the National Space Council under the Biden administration, represents the first formal stamp on space policy by the new administration, outlining plans in a wide range of areas but without specific steps to implement them.
“The Framework will guide the Council’s efforts to develop and implement national space policy and strategy going forward,” a White House official said on background ahead of the council meeting. “It maintains focus on advancing and synchronizing our civil, commercial and national security space activities, and adds emphasis in support of the administration’s agenda, including promoting peaceful exploration of space and reducing the risk of miscalculation or conflict in space; addressing the climate crisis; and enhancing STEM education.”
“We are in a historic moment: space activities are rapidly accelerating, resulting in new opportunities in multiple sectors of society, as well as new challenges to U.S. space leadership, global space governance, the sustainability of the space environment, and safe and secure space operations,” the document states, before launching into an overview of the various benefits space offers.
The document then outlines the administration’s space policy priorities, grouping them into two categories. One addresses “maintaining a robust and responsible U.S. space enterprise.” Those priorities include continued U.S. leadership in space exploration and science, use of space-based capabilities for climate change monitoring, and education. It also includes defending “national security interests from the growing scope and scale of space and counterspace threats,” protecting space-based critical infrastructure and supporting regulations enabling “a competitive and burgeoning U.S. commercial space sector.”
A second category of priorities is titled “preserving space for current and future generations” and includes several topics related to space sustainability. “The United States will engage the international community to uphold and strengthen a rules-based international order for space,” the document states, such as existing and new measures for the long-term sustainability of space activities. It also endorsed continued development of civil space traffic management (STM) capabilities and efforts to track and potentially mitigate any threatening near Earth objects.
The high-level document offered few details about how the administration will carry out those objectives, but does offer clues about where its priorities lie. For example, the document suggests that it will seek to provide certainty about how non-traditional commercial space activities will be regulated in order to comply with the requirement in the Outer Space Treaty to provide “authorization and continuing supervision” of space activities.
“U.S. regulations must provide clarity and certainty for the authorization and continuing supervision of non-governmental space activities, including for novel activities such as on-orbit servicing, orbital debris removal, space-based manufacturing, commercial human spaceflight, and recovery and use of space resources,” the document states. Companies in those sectors have warned for years that the lack of clear authority by any U.S. government agency to provide that oversight posed a challenge to their plans, although the report does not state which agency or agencies should have that responsibility.
The report states that the government “will enhance the security and resilience of space systems that provide or support U.S. critical infrastructure from malicious activities and natural hazards,” building upon cybersecurity principles outlined in Space Policy Directive 5 in 2020. However, the report stops short of classifying space systems as critical infrastructure themselves, something sought by industry and proposed in a bill introduced in the House in June.
The report also appears to leave the door open to reconsidering the agency responsible for civil STM. Space Policy Directive 3 in 2018 assigned that role to the Commerce Department, through its Office of Space Commerce. However, the report says only that an open data platform for space situational awareness data would be “hosted by a U.S. civil agency,” not specifically the Commerce Department. The slow public pace of development of those civil STM activities at Commerce has raised concerns both in industry and on Capitol Hill.
The White House official said that Vice President Kamala Harris, who will chair the Dec. 1 space council meeting, will ask members of the council to work on rules and norms for responsible behavior in space, something the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee asked her to endorse in a Nov. 29 letter. Harris will also call on council members to increase availability of space-based climate data and increase cooperation on “STEM initiatives to support job creation.”
The meeting will also debut an expanded roster of the National Space Council. An executive order scheduled to be signed by President Biden Dec. 1 will formally add the Secretaries of Agriculture, Education, the Interior and Labor to the council, along with the National Climate Advisor. The additions are meant to signal the administration’s intent that “the benefits of American space activities are applied broadly throughout society,” the official said.