In 2017, the Trump administration brought the National Space Council back from the 24 years it spent in dormancy. The executive agency established by George H. W. Bush had been tasked with setting America’s priorities in space, a mission that was of little relevance to the United States after its chief competitor for dominance in orbit ceased to exist. And when the Trump administration bequeathed this institution to its successor, observers with an interest in the future of American space exploration had every reason to believe that the Council would be transformed into a useless talk shop.
By September, those interested parties began telling reporters that the Biden administration—in particular, the vice president, who traditionally chairs the NSC—had no coherent policy aims when it came to space. Kamala Harris “taking ample time to roll out her plans is due to her relative lack of experience on the topic,” according to Politico. Moreover, the White House’s efforts to allay concerns only fueled them. The National Space Council executive secretary, Chirag Parikh, insisted the Harris-led NSC would pursue three primary goals when it came to space: Monitoring climate change, creating terrestrial jobs, and “improving diversity and inclusiveness in our space workforce” as the council’s priorities. Needless to say, this was hardly reassuring.
And yet, an honest assessment of the vice president’s first outing as NSC chair must acknowledge a blessed seriousness of purpose on her part. The White House does not seem inclined to transform this institution into yet another venue to litigate the Democratic Party’s various identity-based grievances. The NSC is not destined to become just one more avenue for political hacks to make a name for themselves. It’s quite possible that the Council will remain an important means by which America establishes immediate threats to its vital national interests in space and develops the means to preserve those interests.
The first NSC meeting of the new administration and the “United States Space Priorities Framework” released around it establishes a strategic policy of preserving potential “manufacturing, transportation, logistics, agriculture, finance, and communications” capabilities in space. While the document contends that our chief priority in orbit will be observational satellites to augment “domestic and international efforts to address the climate crisis,” it doesn’t shy away from acknowledging far more imminent threats on the horizon.
The NSC framework pledges that the U.S. will “strengthen its ability to detect and attribute hostile acts in space.” That’s an urgent priority given recent actions such as those taken by Russia. On November 15, Moscow conducted a test of an anti-satellite missile that vaporized a defunct Russian satellite—a provocative but unremarkable event in itself, insofar as spacefaring powers (including the U.S.) have conducted similar tests in the past. But this test produced a large field of debris that represented a direct threat to American personnel in space. The International Space Station was forced to postpone a planned spacewalk “due to the lack of opportunity to properly assess the risk (the debris) could pose to the astronauts.”
The Russian anti-satellite test and the roughly 1,500 pieces of shrapnel traveling at speeds approaching 7 meters-per-second is estimated to have markedly contributed to the threat posed by space debris, and that threat is existential. Kessler syndrome is the name given to the theoretical notion that Earth orbit may one day become so polluted with space junk that launching anything into the upper atmosphere would become impossible. Any object, manned or unmanned, would be met with a hail of orbital splinters that would destroy the craft, thus contributing to the cloud of debris that would render satellites inoperable and keep humanity bound to the earth. By some estimates, the Russian test put mankind 5 percent closer to the point of no return.
“By blasting debris across space, this irresponsible act endangered the satellites of other nations, as well as astronauts in the International Space Station,” Vice President Harris said in a commendable statement. “We must demand responsibility from all space-faring nations,” she added. “We must expand rules and norms on safety and security, on transparency and cooperation, to include military, commercial and civil space activity.”
The NSC statement notes that the U.S. must be able to “detect” and “attribute” hostile actions in space. More encouraging, the document observes that there is a military dimension to this mission. “To deter aggression against U.S., allied, and partner interests in a manner that contributes to strategic stability, the United States will accelerate its transition to a more resilient national security space posture and strengthen its ability to detect and attribute hostile acts in space,” the framework reads. It dedicates the U.S. to leveraging “new commercial space capabilities” in conjunction with the military to “meet national security requirements,” cementing America’s partnership with the entrepreneurial ventures opening up low earth orbit to commercial investment and broadening that relationship to include military contracts.
This will not be welcomed by critics of the idea that space cannot and should not be “weaponized.” The fact is that space is already “weaponized,” and has been for some time. Those “weapons” are, however, mostly dual-use satellites—vehicles with a commercial or scientific purpose that can also kamikaze themselves into an enemy satellite if necessary. In the future, reusable kill vehicles in orbit will be necessary to protect U.S. interests in the upper atmosphere. Additionally, the reliance on private interests to advance American priorities in space will be deeply resented by “progressives” who lament the existence of these companies and believe space should forever be the exclusive province of governmental enterprises. Those hidebound romantics have been thrown overboard, and good riddance.
These are early days yet, but the vice president and the administration do not appear to see the spectacular opportunity and peril presented by America’s new capabilities in space as just another political football. That’s commendable. Moreover, it indicates a bipartisan willingness to seek and secure American advantage in orbit, no matter how much that aggravates backward populists on either side of the aisle.