State Department seeks a bigger role in space diplomacy

With tensions rising in space, low Earth orbit becoming increasingly congested, and everyday life growing dependent on satellites, the State Department is beefing up its diplomatic efforts involving the final frontier.

In a 25-page document released Tuesday, the State Department outlines what it calls a “strategic framework for space diplomacy,” intended to ensure American leadership in space at a time when China is rising as a space power and the number of countries with space programs is growing. The goals are to “build international partnerships for civil and national security space, promote a rules-based international order for outer space and work to secure the United States and its allies from space-enabled threats.”

Public release of the document comes one day after China announced its intention to put people on the moon by 2030 and on the day China sent three more astronauts to its Tiangong space station orbiting Earth.

“As appropriate, we will raise space-related issues, activities and programs at the highest levels of foreign governments,” the State Department document says. But there are few details on how, specifically, the outline goals would be met or how it would ensure other nations comply with norms of behavior.

Traditionally, space relations have been the purview of NASA or the Pentagon, but the State Department document signals a larger involvement by the diplomatic corps. It is another sign of the growing importance of space in the American worldview that, in some ways, mirrors government activity at the dawn of the Space Age.

Following the Soviet Union launch of Sputnik in 1957, the United States countered a year later by establishing not only NASA but an arm of the Pentagon focused on space that eventually became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the Defense Department. The United States has continued to take action to make national security in space a priority, creating a new service branch in 2019 known as the Space Force. The State Department initiative suggests the expanded military focus now will be accompanied by increased attention to the soft power diplomats wield.

In an interview, Jose Fernandez, undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment at the State Department, said the effort is a recognition that the rapid expansion of space programs makes international cooperation critical to avoiding conflicts and misunderstandings. “We recognize that at times there may be an urge to work independently,” he said of the nation’s space program. “But, really, the way that we are going to succeed in this enterprise is by cooperating with others.”

The effort builds on the NASA Artemis Accords, an international effort that began under the Trump administration that seeks to create a legal framework for behavior in space. So far, 24 nations have signed the accords, which require countries to adhere to a set of rules such as publicly sharing scientific discoveries and creating “safety zones” where nations could work undisturbed on the lunar surface.

Lunar relations between American and China create new space race

They also are intended to foster an alliance in space that would help the United States not just return astronauts to the moon but establish a permanent presence there. In addition to working with traditional allies, such as Canada and France, NASA is also working with countries seeking to build up their space programs, such as the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and Rwanda.

The State Department initiative to deepen those alliances comes at a time when new technologies developed by a growing commercial space sector are changing the way space is used in everyday life and in warfare. Satellite data, the framework document notes, is essential for international responses to disasters, combating climate change, and tracking illegal fishing and the flow of refugees.

Space systems, the State Department framework says, also play an important role in military actions such as “monitoring of arms control treaty compliance” and providing “evidence of war crimes and human rights violations.” The conflict in Ukraine, for instance, has relied heavily on commercial space technology, from the SpaceX Starlink internet constellation that has allowed Ukraine to maintain internet services despite Russian bombing campaigns to imagery satellites that allow real-time views of what is happening on the ground.

“Space systems have expanded access to broadband internet in hard-to-reach areas and are now essential to operations of almost all sectors of U.S. critical infrastructure, directly affecting the lives of American people,” the document says. The United States has also worked to ban destructive antisatellite tests that result in littering Earth orbit with dangerous debris, after Russia blew up a dead satellite in 2021.

And the federal government has been increasingly concerned with Chinese ambitions in space. In recent years, China has landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon and a rover on Mars, and has assembled a space station in low Earth orbit at a time when the International Space Station is aging and is expected to be replaced by 2030.

China’s intention to send astronauts to the moon has alarmed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who has said the United States is now in a space race with China. “If you let China get there first, what’s to stop them from saying, ‘We are here. This is our area. You stay out,’” he said at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill. “That is why I think it is important for us to get there on an international mission and establish the rules of the road.”

The rise of China would play a significant role in the diplomatic effort, Fernandez said. “The fact of the matter is that the PRC has demonstrated significant space capabilities in really a relatively short time,” he said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China. “That is exactly why we need to make sure that the PRC and any space actor act with a transparency that is required. And that as outer space becomes more congested and activities like deploying large satellite constellations increase, major space operators like the PRC share information regarding all of their space activities and plans.”

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