The administration of Donald Trump finds itself in an exciting and challenging position with regard to space. It is the first administration of the 21st century not to have its strategic focus totally consumed with counter-terrorism wars, the first to be able to lift its vision and see beyond the threats to the here and now. As it looks outward, it will perceive that the United States is in the midst of a transition when it comes to its presence in space. The nation is moving beyond its initial, exploratory steps to establish a more permanent position from which to begin acquiring and processing the resources of space to improve life on Earth as well as establish a self-sustaining cycle of existence in space.
This is not the first time the United States has done this. In the 19th century, having secured independence from European colonial powers, the young nation’s focus turned westward toward settling the North American continent. However, before the West could be settled and its resources developed, the region first needed to be explored. The Lewis and Clark Expedition served as the premier example of this government-sponsored effort to establish what resources lay beyond the original thirteen states. Their detailed report allowed the government to establish priorities for further exploration and, ultimately, settlement of the West. The military, in the form of Army forts, moved westward to protect critical transportation junctions and resource concentrations. This initiative helped to bring about the creation of bounded territories, law and order, and eventually more states. Later, once the West had been stabilized to an extent, the government sponsored, in cooperation with industry, the construction of a railroad that spanned the continent, tying East to West. Ultimately other railroads linked with the initial trunk-line on their own initiative, allowing the full exploitation of the resources of the West.
This analogy of government serving in the initial exploring role, providing security, establishing laws, and even serving as the sponsor for initial resource exploitation is useful in considering the United States’ current strategic position in space. The government, through its unmanned and manned civil space initiatives, has mapped the solar system, establishing knowledge of key resource concentrations and possible areas for human settlement. It has also established the basic legal premises for future expansion into space. However, we now stand at the cusp of a new era of space activities,an era when space promises to be a profit and resource generation center for nations involved in its exploitation. This era will be marked by increased competition, as key concentrations are identified and claimed by commercial entities or nation states. Such competitions have historically drawn military forces into play in order to protect national interests.
Given historical precedence and the premise that we face a new era in space, it is appropriate for the Trump administration to promote a policy that is not so much an evolutionary extension of those of previous administrations, but rather a revolutionary leap ahead with regard to the U.S. position in space. Therefore, we propose significant changes in the nation’s interpretation and enforcement of international laws that apply to space activities, increased focus in the U.S. civil space program on identifying resource and settlement opportunities, expansion and freeing of the commercial space sector to fully harness the resources and wealth of space, and strengthening national security infrastructure in space both to protect the nation’s interests there and to support ongoing military operations on Earth. These initiatives are spelled out in greater detail as follows.
The legal frameworks for space policy that the United States has followed since 1967 are no longer sufficient for the future of space exploration. Ambiguity in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is both a benefit and a curse: although allowing countries to interpret the requirements and restrictions may provide a certain level of freedom, the treaty also contains internal conflicts that provide grounds for possible future conflict with regard to resource development. The Trump administration needs to provide a clear strategy for U.S. space policy efforts and assert a broader interpretation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Because crafting a new international space agreement would be time-consuming and difficult, the best strategy is to provide clarifying guidance with regard to interpreting the current treaty for both domestic and international space actors.
The Necessity of Civil Space Exploration
U.S. civil space efforts should focus on exploration and pioneering endeavors that are necessary but involve no immediate financial incentive sufficient to draw a commercial entity to pursue them. These areas include deep space and first-finder missions—enterprises that offer immense scientific and technical returns but little financial return. They will pave the way for an eager and increasingly capable commercial sector to follow and develop. Additionally, these missions are necessary not only to sustain the United States’ global leadership, but also to deepen humankind’s understanding of the universe and our place within it.
Where the Government Leads, the Commercial Sector Can Follow
The commercial space sector is growing rapidly in both willingness and capability. The Trump administration should enable the growth of this essential industry by clarifying and streamlining government authorities, reducing overlapping government and commercial efforts, and ensuring that export and import regulations reflect contemporary rationale. The future will require a robust commercial space industry. Failing to properly support the commercial space sector would be a very costly mistake.
National Security in Space
National security requirements are increasingly dependent on technology and resources on-orbit around the earth. The Trump administration’s space policy must acknowledge this critical dependency and invest in efforts to improve resiliency in this domain. Near-peer competitors have spent the past several decades leveraging asymmetric opportunities against the United States; the Trump administration needs to ensure that the country’s dependency on space does not turn into another such opportunity.
The full report can be found here.
Hendrix and Routh are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-457-9409.