Obama Announces Space Policy: Down With Space Debris, Up With International Cooperation

Orbital Debris

The dots on this NASA-generated chart represent known pieces of large orbital debris.NASA

Cleaning up space junk, conducting climate research and forging international celestial harmony are the hallmarks of President Obama's new National Space Policy (PDF), unveiled Monday. Parts of the plan had been expected for months, but NASA-philes were still holding out hope for a grand vision of human exploration.

But there were no Kennedy-esque calls to action, neither for the purpose of scientific exploration nor for national prestige. NASA's exploration role is fairly vague -- sure, there's a call for expanded robotics and human spaceflight programs, but there's no specific location or time frame.

The biggest news is Obama's focus on international cooperation, a departure from his predecessor. Specifically, he wants countries to work together to clean up space junk, which the Pentagon has said is a threat.

The 14-page document also explains how the U.S. will use space to study Earth, and how NASA will cede ground to the private sector, working with commercial firms to develop new modes of space transport.

The space agency will expand its focus on Earth science, specifically climate research. Satellites will be tasked with studying natural and human-caused changes to climate, land and water, and a new fleet of weather satellites will provide better forecasts.

Obama notes that space belongs to all nations -- perhaps an important point given China's ambitious space goals. The document offers little detail about how space cooperation will work, other than to say that with great power comes great responsibility.

"The now- ubiquitous and interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world's growing dependence on them mean that irresponsible acts in space can have damaging consequences for all of us," the paper says.

Specifically, Obama wants international cooperation in cleaning up space junk, which the Pentagon has already said presents a threat. The U.S. will share more information with other countries in an effort to prevent satellite collisions, and will fund research into cleaning up existing space debris. That nugget is really the only new detail that sets Obama's space policy apart from his predecessors'

George W. Bush's policy, by contrast, was to remind the world that it better not stop the U.S. from entering into solar-system domination if it so chose.

Obama recasts this in a defensive light, saying the U.S. will deter others from interfering or attacking its interests, and fight back if necessary. Again, details are lacking, but the document comes with a classified counterpart that probably has more meaty stuff.