Photo credit: European Space Agency (ESA)
The US National Space Policy (NSP) outlines military, civil, and commercial efforts in space and is the authoritative policy document that guides the space activities of NASA, the intelligence community, and the Departments of Defense, State, Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, Transportation, and Interior. Therefore, the publication of a new NSP—which has occurred once per administration since President Carter—is a good opportunity to take stock of broad shifts in US space policy, their origins, and whether these changes will endure. The latest NSP published in December is the longest ever—longer than the previous two iterations combined.[i] While about 45% of the 2020 NSP is identical to the 2010 version, the new portions reflect increased security competition, economic advances, and technological progress in space, making it the most ambitious and detailed space strategy to date.[ii] The following outlines the most substantial changes to the 2020 NSP.
|2010 NSP||2020 NSP|
|Space as a Military Domain||Space viewed as a potential domain of conflict||Space is a “warfighting domain”; identifies Space Force and USSPACECOM as primary DoD actors|
|Deterrence in Space||Against adversary counterspace||Cross-domain|
|Cybersecurity||No reference||Prioritizes securing space assets from cyberattack|
|Planetary Defense||No reference||Calls on NASA to develop options|
|Resource Extraction||No reference||Directs resource extraction|
|Permanent Presence in Space||Crewed missions beyond moon by 2025; mission to Mars orbit by mid-2030s||Return to moon by 2024; sustained moon presence by 2028; mission to Mars in 2030s; alternatives to ISS|
Space as a Military Domain
The 2010 NSP spoke in generalities about military dimensions of space by framing space as a potential, rather than ongoing, domain of conflict. In contrast, the 2020 NSP describes space as a “warfighting domain” (as China did in 2015), directs the “fielding of materiel [military]… capabilities,” and calls on the intelligence community and Defense Department to provide “decisive military advantages.”[iii] It introduces the US Space Force, established in December 2019, as the primary body for organizing, equipping, and training military forces for space operations. The NSP also calls on US Space Command, re-established in August 2019, to oversee military operations in space.
Deterrence in Space
The 2020 NSP states that the U.S. would retaliate against any attacks on US or allied space systems “at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing.” This stands in contrast to the 2010 NSP, that calls for “defeat[ing] efforts to attack” US space systems, implying that the U.S. would respond to an attack by targeting the asset that conducted the attack. By threatening to retaliate in any domain—land, air, sea, cyber, space—the 2020 NSP is an effort to strengthen US deterrence and shift a potential space conflict back to traditional warfighting domains where the U.S. enjoys superiority, experience, and less risk to strategic systems. This is likely in part a response to Russian and Chinese efforts to develop increasingly sophisticated counterspace systems over the last decade.[iv]
The 2020 NSP is the first to have a section on cyber, reflecting the increased frequency, sophistication, and prevalence of cyberattacks. The policy directs the U.S. to protect its space systems from cyberattacks in collaboration with the private sector and friendly governments. Cyberattacks against space systems—including satellites, ground control stations, and supply chains—can cause disruptive or destructive effects. While advanced space powers possess high-end counterspace capabilities, like missiles or directed-energy weapons, a wide range of actors with less resources or capability can still utilize, develop, or purchase cyber capabilities for their operations.[v]
The 2020 NSP addresses planetary defense for the first time. Planetary defense is the process of discovering asteroids or comets heading toward Earth, conducting intercept missions if possible, and coordinating preparations for potential impact on Earth.[vi] As such, the NSP calls on NASA to develop planetary defense options to mitigate the impact of comets or asteroids impacting Earth. In 2016, NASA established a Planetary Defense Coordination Office, citing the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor impact that injured over 1,000 as “a cosmic wake-up call.”[vii] In late 2021/early 2022, NASA will launch an impactor at an asteroid in a first-ever attempt to change the trajectory and speed of an asteroid.[viii]
The 2020 NSP says the U.S. “will pursue the extraction and utilization of space resources” and extend human economic activity into deep space. This builds on the 2010 NSP, which called upon NASA to “identify potentially resource-rich planetary objects.” The last decade has seen a massive boom (and a few busts) in the space mining industry with studies estimating annual market growth of 24% through 2025.[ix] This change aligns with a 2015 law promoting the commercial exploitation of space resources, calling it a “right” of US citizens.[x]
Permanent Presence in Space
The 2020 NSP calls for a return to the moon by 2024, a permanent presence on the moon by 2028, a subsequent mission to Mars, continued operations on the International Space Station (ISS), and the development of commercial space platforms. This represents three important shifts. First, the 2020 NSP refocuses NASA’s efforts on the Moon, which was not addressed in the 2010 NSP. Secondly, it calls for landing on Mars, not simply entering its orbit, as was proposed in 2010. Finally, it advocates using commercial platforms in orbit to “transition beyond ISS operations,” a shift from 2010 NSPs prioritization of the ISS. All told, these shifts represent a bolder road map for human activity in space.
The Way Forward
While some details and timelines will shift, most elements of this ambitious NSP are likely to endure into the Biden administration. Biden was vice-president when Obama signed the bipartisan bill on space resource extraction, and his administration recently endorsed the Space Force, announced a new prioritization of cybersecurity, and backed the Artemis Project—NASA’s plan to return to the moon. [xi] More so, the incoming NASA director signaled support for the Planetary Defense mission.[xii] The NSP is largely an apolitical document that reflects—rather than drives—the changing political, economic, and technological characteristics of space.[xiii] As future administrations develop space policies, external actors will exert greater pressure on the process. Whereas space was once the domain of select governments, companies and governments around the world today are driving forward—88% of current satellites are operated by foreign governments or commercial entities—making an ambitious US national space policy more a necessity than a choice.
[i] “National Space Policy of the United States,” National Security Council, 28 Jun 2010, https://history.nasa.gov/national_space_policy_6-28-10.pdf; “National Space Policy of the United States,” National Security Council, 31 Aug 2006, https://aerospace.org/sites/default/files/policy_archives/Natl%20Space%20Policy%20fact%20sheet%2031Aug06.pdf
[ii] “National Space Policy of the United States,” National Security Council, 9 Dec 2020, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/National-Space-Policy.pdf.
[vii] “Five Years After the Chelyabinsk Meteor, NASA leads Efforts in Planetary Defense,” NASA, 15 Feb 2018, https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/news/331/five-years-after-the-chelyabinsk-meteor-nasa-leads-efforts-in-planetary-defense/
[viii] Jeff Foust, “NASA Delays Launch of Planetary Defense Mission,” Space News, 17 Feb 2021, https://spacenews.com/nasa-delays-launch-of-planetary-defense-mission/
[ix] “Space Mining Market by Phase (Spacecraft Design, Launch, and Operation), Type of Asteroid (C-Type, M-Type, S-Type), Application (Construction, Fuel, and Others), Asteroid Distance, Commodity Resources, and Geography – Global Forecast to 2025,” Markets and Markets, Oct 2018, https://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/space-mining-market-129545886.html; Divyanshi Tewari, “Asteroid Mining Market by Phase (Space-craft Design, Launch, and Operation), Asteroid type (Type C, Type S, Type M, and Others), and Application (Construction, Resource Harvesting, 3D Printing, and Others): Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2017 – 2025,” Allied Market Research, Jan 2019, https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/asteroid-mining-market
[x] “H.R.2262 – U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,” US Congress, accessed Feb 2021, https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2262
[xi] Maggie Miller, “Biden: US taking ‘urgent’ steps to improve cybersecurity,” The Hill, 4 Feb 2021, https://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/537436-biden-says-administration-launching-urgent-initiative-to-improve-nations; Mark Whittington, “The Biden administration endorses NASA’s Artemis, the Space Force,” The Hill, 7 Feb 2021, https://thehill.com/opinion/technology/537663-the-biden-administration-endorses-nasas-artemis-the-space-force
[xii] Meghan Bartels, “NASA has a lot to tackle this year as Biden takes charge. Here’s what the agency’s acting chief has to say.” Space.com, 5 Feb 2021, https://www.space.com/nasa-acting-administrator-steve-jurczyk-2021-interview
[xiii] One notable exception: references to climate change were included by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama but removed by George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
[xiv] “UCS Satellite Database,” Union of Concerned Satellites, 1 Jan 2021, https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/satellite-database