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Experts Outline Plethora of Issues Facing the Second Obama Administration

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 04-Dec-2012
Updated: 04-Dec-2012 06:44 PM

As a group of experts demonstrated at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. yesterday, there is no shortage of pressing space policy challenges facing the second Obama Administration. The problem is choosing just which ones to tackle first.

SpacePolicyOnline Founder and Editor Marcia Smith kicked off the panel, which was convened by the Secure World Foundation (SWF), by laying out a series of challenges in the civil national and international spheres, including the budget shortfall, the future of Landsat beyond the launch of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission in February 2013, as well as persisting uncertainty over NASA priorities. Yet, Smith emphasized that in order to be successful in addressing any of these, there is a need to improve on an underlying aspect of the relationship between key stakeholders: trust.

Not only features of what has been a turbulent relationship between the Executive Branch and Congress during the first Obama Administration, mistrust and unease permeate on a larger scale between the United States and its international partners.  The U.S. decision to pull out of the joint U.S.-European  robotic Mars mission called ExoMars is a perfect example, Smith explained. Even though Europe remains interested in cooperating with the United States – something which “amazes me,” she said – rebuilding U.S. credibility as a reliable partner will be key moving forward.

While export control reform was not the top priority in Patricia Cooper’s list of key issues facing the commercial space sector, the outcome of key regulatory issues seemed the focal point for this community. Cooper, president of the Satellite Industry Association, listed on-orbit safety, hosted payloads, export control reform (or ITAR) and spectrum management as the main challenges. At the root of several of these issues is how the U.S. military, which depends on commercial satellite telecommunications to carry out its missions, will interact with the private sector to resolve these issues.  For example, improving on-orbit safety through increased space situational awareness (SSA) has been a priority for the private sector, leading to the establishment of the Space Data Association (SDA). Yet the degree of acceptance of this initiative by the U.S. military – particularly Strategic Command – is still an open question.

For his part, Brian Weeden, SWF Technical Advisor, highlighted the importance of improving SSA and the challenges the U.S. military faces in doing so, as captured in his recent report: “Going Blind: Why America is on the verge of Losing its Situational Awareness in Space and What Can be done About it.” Weeden noted that while the U.S. Air Force has made progress increasing its SSA capabilities, such as through the now operational Space Based Space Surveillance satellite launched in 2010 – the processing of the data produced by these systems as they come online is still a critical “choke point.” As described in the report, Weeden said that the “material, cultural and bureaucratic shackles” of the U.S. Air Force prevent it from developing a solution to this problem by itself. Instead, the U.S. military should adopt a more open approach to developing standards and capabilities and grow its community of stakeholders.

Wrapping up the panel was Eligar Sadeh, president of Astroconsulting International who outlined the key points in a recent SWF-funded effort to advance strategic thinking with respect to space and which led to a book he edited entitled Space Strategy in the 21st Century.  Sadeh explained that a successful, comprehensive strategy could not only help fulfill policy, but also connect ways to means, two persisting issues prevalent in the space arena. He added that such a strategy can help better coordinate space activities as well as begin to address the issues identified by the panel.  In describing the findings of the experts contained in the book, Sadeh noted the requirements to advancing strategic thinking: top-level political will, the establishment of a process to think strategically, and the ready availability of trained and competent strategists.

Audience interaction with the panel proved that even more issues are of concern to the community, such as the status of efforts to establish an international space code of conduct, and the complex relationship with China. While the exercise may have frustrated someone’s interest to come away with a list of top five issues to watch in space, it instead confirmed what Smith said at the beginning of the panel: “we [the space community] will continue to be very busy in the next four years.”


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