President Bush has signed a new National Space Policy that rejects future arms-control agreements that might limit U.S. flexibility in space and asserts a right to deny access to space to anyone "hostile to U.S. interests."
The document, the first full revision of overall space policy in 10 years, emphasizes security issues, encourages private enterprise in space, and characterizes the role of U.S. space diplomacy largely in terms of persuading other nations to support U.S. policy.
The new document, released last Friday afternoon in advance of a three-day weekend, contains much that was in the 1996 U.S. National Space Policy (NSP) drafted by the Clinton administration, but there are some differences that, not surprisingly, indicate a subtle move by the Bush administration away from accepted principles of international space law and toward a more unilateral approach. For example, the Clinton administration's 1996 document stated:
The United States considers the space systems of any nation to be national property with the right of passage through and operations in space without interference. Purposeful interference with space systems shall be viewed as an infringement on sovereign rights. (Emphasis added.)
The new NSP states:
The United States considers space systems to have the rights of passage through and operations in space without interference. Consistent with this principle, the United States will view purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights.
Under international law, outer space is considered res communis. That is, it is not subject to the control of any state. The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies--better known as the Outer Space Treaty--provides the basic legal framework governing activities in space. (And, yes, the United States is a party to the treaty.)
The first three articles of the Outer Space Treaty are worth quoting in their entirety:
The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.
Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.
There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international co-operation in such investigation.
Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.
States Parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co-operation and understanding.
Technically, the Bush Administration is within the law to "view purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights." But this formulation makes the rights sound as if they're grounded in U.S. sovereignty--or at least U.S. military might. In fact, the rights being asserted are multilateral and non-exclusive. Outer space is "free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind" (in the words of the Outer Space Treaty).
Other states take note of U.S. policy pronouncements like the one embodied in the new NSP. They also notice the changing tone of American policy.
If you're interested in more information, the Center for Defense Information provides an assessment of the new NSP here. Michael Katz-Hyman of the Henry L. Stimson Center provides a very useful side-by-side comparison of the 1996 NSP and the 2006 NSP here. To read the complete text of the NSP itself, go here [.pdf]. Finally, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs is located on the Internet here.