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Friday, May 24, 2024

The US National Space Council Is Back and Focused on Security

On Wednesday morning, US vice president Kamala Harris led the Biden administration’s inaugural National Space Council meeting, at which she and other political leaders outlined their priorities for the future of civil, commercial, and military space activities. She’s the first woman and first person of color to run such a meeting, which has traditionally been led by the vice president. While Harris has considerable foreign policy experience, this is her first major foray into space politics. 

“While our space exploration takes us to the moon, Mars, and the edge of our solar system, I believe we also have the responsibility to look to our home planet,” Harris said at the meeting, which was held at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, and was streamed online. She was introduced by senator and former astronaut Mark Kelly of Arizona, who said that “space exploration has the incredible capacity to inspire future generations” while citing his own inspiration from “Neil and Buzz.”

The National Space Council is intended to coordinate policies and priorities across numerous government agencies that deal with everything from space observations to launches, communications, and security. Former president George H. W. Bush created the original council in 1989, which was led by his vice president, Dan Quayle. Then the organization was disbanded in 1993. Former president Donald Trump revived the council in 2017, and then-VP Mike Pence headed it for a series of eight meetings. In March, President Biden’s national security advisers announced that the administration would revive the council.

The meeting brought together leaders from more than a dozen federal agencies and included advisers from the space industry and military. In conjunction with the meeting, President Biden signed an executive order adding five new members to the council: the secretaries of education, labor, agriculture, and interior, as well as the national climate adviser. The additions are aimed at ensuring that the benefits of American space activities are applied broadly throughout society, Harris said.

Harris also announced the release of the United States Space Priorities Framework, which outlines the goals of the Biden administration. It appears to maintain support for a number of policies from the previous administration: funding the moon program, known as Artemis; building the Space Force military branch; increasing competition with space rivals China and Russia; investing in science and technology education; continuing support for nonbinding rules or norms that would limit congestion and junk in orbit; and facilitating the growth of the commercial space industry. The framework also identifies “space as critical to modern warfare” and calls for expanding the development of Earth-observing satellites that aid action on climate change.

“Without clear norms for the responsible use of space, we stand the real risk of threats to our national and global security,” Harris said. She referred to Russia’s anti-satellite missile test two weeks ago as an “irresponsible act;” it generated some 1,500 pieces of orbital debris, delaying astronauts aboard the International Space Station from doing a planned spacewalk on Tuesday. The hurtling field of debris generated by that test, and earlier ones by China, the US, and India, have shown that flotsam can remain in orbit and threaten spacecraft for years.

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“We would like to see all nations agree to refrain from anti-satellite weapons testing that creates debris,” deputy secretary of defense Kathleen Hicks said at the meeting.

Along with Hicks and Harris, other Biden administration members said they support developing norms for responsible behavior in space, especially to avoid a misunderstanding or miscalculation that could lead to conflict when rivals’ spacecraft fly near each other. Other officials have already made similar arguments public, including defense secretary Lloyd Austin, who wrote in a July memo that such norms are part of “space leadership;” top members of the Senate Commerce Committee, who in a letter sent to Harris on Monday wrote that the Russian weapons test “recklessly threatened the safety and sustainability of low Earth orbit;” and General John ‘Jay’ Raymond, the Space Force’s chief of space operations, in who concluded in a recent Washington Post opinion piece that the “cost of inaction is too high.”

They also emphasized the need for streamlining and improving regulations for the commercial space industry at a time of increasing activity in low Earth orbit. Department of Commerce chief Gina Raimondo pointed to the need to better manage space traffic, not just to avoid crashing into errant bits of trash but also to prevent collisions between satellites that could create yet more debris. That involves what’s referred to as “space situational awareness,” or tracking the thousands of pieces of orbiting junk and predicting their future trajectories. The Pentagon is currently in charge of this massive monitoring effort, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult as satellite megaconstellations grow and as space junk proliferates. The Commerce department has developed its own prototype system for managing civil and commercial space traffic—for everything except military spacecraft—and plans to make it operational over the “next several years,” Raimondo said.

Finally, national climate adviser Gina McCarthy drew attention to the role that space-based technologies can play in addressing problems on Earth, especially climate change. That includes continuing government investment in Earth-observing satellites, climate research, and climate adaptation programs. “Access to space with our cutting-edge Earth observation platforms are providing critically important climate data,” McCarthy said, citing ice core data, sea level measurements, and algal bloom observations. Her statement comes a few weeks after the international climate summit known as COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, which Biden attended along with NASA leaders, who emphasized the agency’s resources and research involving heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and droughts.Space and climate experts who watched the meeting remotely expressed optimism that the council would move toward finding solutions for the space debris problem, and they praised Hicks’ comment about refraining from anti-satellite tests. “That’s essentially an anti-satellite moratorium that they’re calling for,” said Victoria Samson, the Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. “I don’t think that’s something we would’ve seen a couple years ago,” she continued, arguing that the national space security establishment has gradually come around to the notion of developing behavioral guardrails to prevent such dangerous incidents in the future.

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“I thought that was one of the opportunities for the US to exhibit leadership, and for Kath Hicks to say that, I think that’s a very positive sign,” said Bruce McClintock, lead of the Space Enterprise Initiative at the Rand Corporation, a federally financed and military-focused research center.

Despite the frequent emphasis on security issues, Harris ultimately sought to convey a diplomatic message. “Our planet is fragile. Our planet is beautiful. And it is filled with billions of people who are at once different and the same,” she said. “From space, all of humanity is one, and through our work in space, we have the opportunity to benefit not only the American people, but all of humanity.”


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