National Space Policies Past and Present

, co-director and senior scientist | June 29, 2010, 5:54 pm EDT
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The new U.S. National Space Policy (NSP) was released yesterday (full textof unclassified summary and fact sheet). The Policy is more detailed than its predecessors, giving clear high-level guidance on a range of issues.

Its basic message on security is also clear: making a distinct break from the G.W. Bush policy of 2006, it opens the door to arms control and puts a much bigger emphasis on international cooperation. It is the first NSP that talks about transparency and confidence-building measures.

While the new NSP is a significant change from the previous one, some of its key statements about security issues represent a return to policies that were in place during the Carter, Reagan, Bush senior, and Clinton years.

We illustrate this below by comparing excerpts from the publicly released versions of the National Space Policies since they were first issued by the Carter administration in 1978.

NSP language on the use of space and “peaceful purposes”

This text has remained essentially unchanged since the Carter days:

Carter 1978: “Commitment to the principles of the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of all mankind. ‘Peaceful purposes’ allow for military and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national security and other goals.”

Reagan 1982: “The United States is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of all mankind.” [Second sentence deleted during declassification review]*

*The deleted sentence is believed to be the same as the second sentence in the Carter NSP, which was deleted from the initial public version of the Carter document in 1978, but was released when the document was partially declassified in 1998.

Bush 1989: “The United States is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of all mankind. ‘Peaceful purposes’ allow for activities in pursuit of national security goals.”

Clinton 1996: “The United States is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes and for the benefit of all humanity. ‘Peaceful purposes’ allow defense and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national security and other goals.”

Bush 2006: “The United States is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity. Consistent with this principle, ‘peaceful purposes’ allow U.S. defense and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests;”

Obama 2010: “All nations have the right to explore and use space for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity, in accordance with international law. Consistent with this principle, ‘peaceful purposes’ allows for space to be used for national and homeland security activities.”

NSP language on arms control

The 2006 G.W. Bush policy was a break with previous policies; the Obama policy generally returns to those earlier policies:

Carter 1978: (none)

Reagan 1982: “The United States will continue to study space arms control options. The United States will consider verifiable and equitable arms control measures that would ban or otherwise limit testing and deployment of specific weapons systems should those measures be compatible with United States national security. The United States will oppose arms control concepts or legal regimes that seek general prohibitions on the military or intelligence use of space.”

Bush 1989: “The United States will consider and, as appropriate, formulate policy positions on arms control measures governing activities in space, and will conclude agreements on such measures only if they are equitable, effectively verifyable, and enhance the security of the United States and our allies.”

Clinton 1996: “The United States will consider and, as appropriate, formulate policy positions on arms control and related measures governing activities in space, and will conclude agreements on such measures only if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the security of the United States and our allies.”

Bush 2006: “The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.”

Obama 2010: “The United States will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.”

Beginning with the Carter NSP and continuing through the Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, and Clinton Space Policies, the freedom to use space without interference and acquire data from space was stated as a general principle governing all countries. However, in the Bush 2006 NSP the language changed to describing these issues as rights of the United States. This shift was particularly controversial since it has been read as implying that the United States does not recognize these as rights of other countries. Language is given below (bolded text indicates significant changes in wording between subsequent National Space Policies):


NSP language regarding the right of countries to use space and to operate without interference.

Carter 1978: “…Rejection of any claims to sovereignty over outer space or over celestial bodies, or any portion thereof, and rejection of any limitations on the fundamental right to acquire data from space.”

Reagan 1982: “The United States rejects any claims to sovereignty by any nation over outer space or celestial bodies, or any portion thereof, and rejects any limitations on the fundamental right to acquire data from space.”

Bush 1989: “The United States rejects any claims to sovereignty by any nation over outer space or celestial bodies, or any portion thereof, and rejects any limitations on the fundamental right of sovereign nations to acquire data from space.”

Clinton 1996: “The United States rejects any claims to sovereignty by any nation over outer space or celestial bodies, or any portion thereof, and rejects any limitations on the fundamental right of sovereign nations to acquire data from space.”

Bush 2006: “The United States rejects any claims to sovereignty by any nation over outer space or celestial bodies, or any portion thereof, and rejects any limitations on the fundamental right of the United States to operate in and acquire data from space.”

Obama 2010:As established in international law, there shall be no national claims of sovereignty over outer space or any celestial bodies.”


NSP language regarding the right to operate without interference.

Carter 1978: “Purposeful interference with operational space systems shall be viewed as infringement upon sovereign rights.”

Reagan 1982: “Purposeful interference with space systems shall be viewed as infringement upon sovereign rights.”

Bush 1989: “Purposeful interference with space systems shall be viewed as infringement upon sovereign rights.”

Clinton 1996: “Purposeful interference with space systems shall be viewed as infringement upon sovereign rights.”

Bush 2006: “…the United States will view purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights.”

Obama 2010: “Purposeful interference with space systems, including supporting infrastructure, will be considered an infringement of a nation’s rights.”

We’ll have more to say about the new National Space Policy in the coming days.

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