The Creation and Evolution of US Space Policy (Part I)

The Creation and Evolution of US Space Policy (Part I)

The Creation and Evolution of US Space Policy (Part I)

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By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University

Note: This is the first article in a four-part series on the creation and evolution of U.S. space policy. This article covers the United States space policy development process.

The United States National Space Policy is the product of the federal government’s effort to set the direction for the national space program. Throughout the history of the American space program, an evolution in space policy — and the process that creates it — has occurred.

Modern space policy under the country’s most recent presidents looks quite a bit different from the first space directives that came from Eisenhower and Kennedy in the mid-twentieth century.

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And even between presidents of the modern era, the differences in space directives are significant.

The space policy process of the U.S. federal government is a complex and tedious bureaucratic mechanism. It has changed over time since the inception of the national space program, but its objective has remained the same: to make the most efficient, effective use of the resources allocated by our government to space exploration and development.

The Three Stages of the Space Policy Creation Process

In the most fundamental sense, the space policy creation process consists of three main stages. Those stages are goal setting by national leaders, the empowerment of administrative agencies to achieve those goals, and allocations of resources (i.e. funding) to achieve those goals.

The stage, goal setting, sounds simple, but it is perhaps the most complicated of all of the policy stages. You might think that a sitting President would simply decide on which space directives should be given priority and then send that list off to Congress for funding. However, reality dictates that many other factors beyond what the President wants must be considered.

If the sitting President is in a second term, for example, he may feel less beholden to public opinion in crafting policy positions. But if he is in a first term and planning to run for re-election — as is often the case — then much more weight is given to the opinions of the constituency.

The constituency also includes myriad coalitions that are aimed at swaying policy direction. coalitions are geared toward the promotion of space-based economies and the support of private-sector space industries. Others are more concerned with national defense and the ways in which space infrastructure can help to bolster national security.

Still others are concerned with different priorities, such as the need for scientific study in space or the existential pressure for humans to colonize other planets in the interest of survival. These groups, which may be made up of citizens, businesses, military branches, politicians, and other interested parties, create a very complicated political arena for policy design.

The second stage is directing administrative agencies to carry out the plan. Once goals have been established, they are generally published through statements from the Executive Branch. Also, these goals are usually stipulated in the proposed annual federal budget of a President’s administration.

The third stage involves obtaining the necessary funding. The budget must be reviewed in Congress through an exhausting process of negotiation and quid pro quo. As a result, interested parties vie for priority in resource allocation.

Members of Congress who represent districts with a heavy space industry presence might want to see that more funding is given to private-sector contracts for launches, satellite construction, and other space-related activities. On the other hand, their counterparts who serve on military and defense sub-committees will champion their own interests. They will want to see that more money is allocated to defense-oriented space missions than to private-sector economic stimulus.

Sometimes, these interests align. One example would be a private-sector company that has developed military satellites under a government contract. But this situation doesn’t always happen. When it doesn’t, conflict arises and compromises are difficult.

Once an appropriate priority for the space program has been negotiated between the administration and all interested stakeholders in Congress, the programs must be funded. This stage is contingent on a variety of other factors, including the annual tax revenue that the government currently collects and the percentage of the federal budget allocated to the space program. Suffice it to say that the process is messy.

In the next part of this article, we’ll look at the history of United States space policy leading up to the presidential administrations of the 21st century.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.