A Review of the Past 20 Years of American Space Policy

di Gabriel Lazazzara - 1 Febbraio 2021

  from Trieste, Italy

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00166


2020 has come to an end. It has certainly brought many changes and challenges on the international stage. Nevertheless, to understand them it is necessary to consider a broader time perspective. If there is one sector that has radically changed in the last 20 years – besides the Internet – it is space. The beneficial uses of outer space have grown exponentially together with the disruption of its old paradigm. Until the beginning of the twenty-first century, outer space has remained a state affair. Nevertheless, in the last 10-15 years it has seen a radical paradigm shift.

The space field started to be defined as the 3-C environment: congested, contested, competitive (Director of National Intelligence, 2011). The number of space objects, national space agencies, and private enterprises started to rise. Countries’ posture in the space arena had to adapt accordingly. Facing a paradigm shift of these proportions, maintaining outer space for peaceful purposes has become increasingly difficult. The question now is: what has Washington done in space over the past 20 years?


The Bush Years

On January 20, 2001, the presidency of George W. Bush began. Later that year, on September 11, 2001, a terrorist attack organized by al-Qaeda changed the course of history. While terrorism had already emerged as an issue during the Clinton Administration, it became dominant during the Bush Administration, affecting also the approach to outer space. In this regard, space policy changed dramatically together with the priorities of military space officials. Nevertheless, in those years, the space studies remained attached to a view where States are the main actors neglecting any possibilities of terrorists getting involved in space (ESPI, 2009). 

On February 1, 2003, the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated during the re-entry and all the 7 crew members died. The future of the U.S. human space flight program has been severely affected by the disaster. Nonetheless, while the Space Shuttle program was still suspended, President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004. The shuttle program was announced to be terminated by 2010 and NASA focus was directed at returning humans to the Moon by 2020. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense had a substantial increase in budget allocation for space programs, too. 

In 2001, at the beginning of the Bush administration, NASA accounted for $15,1 billion in the Federal Budget while the DoD space budget reached $15,2 billion (NASA, 2004). By the end of the Bush administration there was a clear predominance of the DoD purposes. Indeed, for the FY 2006 DoD requested $22.5 billion while NASA received slightly more than $15 billion again (Moloney, 2006).


The Obama Years

President Barack Obama during his presidential campaign referred to his predecessor administration as characterized by an ambitious agenda but stunted by poor planning and inadequate funding (Obama, 2008). As a matter of fact the retirement of the Space Shuttle did not coincide with a new crewed orbital launch system augmenting the dependence on other space-faring nations. His space vision can be summed up by three key C-words: coordination, cooperation, and commercialization (Obama, 2008).

Key to Obama’s plans was the coordination among different federal agencies to make wiser decisions and budget allocations to benefit taxpayers. Likewise, he believed that with closer coordination both NASA and other federal agencies could take advantage of their expertise and technologies by sharing research and technical information. Secondly, space was seen as a strategic tool for the U.S. diplomacy, giving the opportunity to reduce future conflicts. Indeed he actively wanted to work towards a “rules of the road” agreement for space to ensure all nations have a common understanding of acceptable behavior, centering it on a strong opposing of space weaponization (Obama, 2008).

When the Economic Crisis Pushed for a New Paradigm in Space Exploration

Wider commercialization of space would have benefited both government and society. Obama envisioned it as a cost sharing method and a fair way to unleash the genius of private enterprise to grant the United States’ leadership in space. From written words to solid facts. The Obama administration effectively deviated from the previous administration’s unilateralist approach, incorporating multilateralism into the 2010 National Space Policy’s major targets. The U.S. space strategy became the product of a much more coordinated approach, it complemented the national space strategy with the national security space strategy, serving the larger U.S. National Security Strategy. Finally, also commercialization of space has received a strong push thanks to the 2015 U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.

Coming to the last DoD budget request took into consideration, the one for FY 2017. In that document for the first time “space superiority” had its own chapter demonstrating an ever increasing importance given to the military value of outer space. The budget requested reached a total of $7.1 billion (Department of Defense, 2016). On the other hand, the budget pointed out even more the administration’s commitment to making NASA the real growth catalyst for the commercial space industry. The stated goal was to end the reliance on foreign space systems to get into space by 2017. While this did not happen, NASA’s budget for the FY 2017 grew exponentially, reaching $19.65 billion (Foust, 2017).


The Trump Years 

President Trump has made a fair bit of space news. In his mandate his administration has produced six space policy directives, revitalized the National Space Council, funded the U.S. Space Force, set an ambitious program to return to the Moon by 2024 and opened a new era of space multilateralism with the Artemis Accords last May. The slogan of the Presidential campaign was “Make America Great Again”, and it cannot be said that he did not try to return American space program to the glories of the Apollo Program. The context is radically different from the Cold War one. Nevertheless, some similarities persist and come out through the official documents where a new space rival is rapidly advancing its capabilities: People’s Republic of China.

A Renewed Assertiveness

In contrast to the previous administration which tried to renew a multilateral and cooperative posture in the international arena, Donald Trump returned to a more assertive space stance, revitalizing Bush’s unilateral tone. This is explicit reading the 2017 National Security Strategy where the administration sees China and Russia as the main challengers of the American power, influence and interests. In addition, they took another strong stance saying that “when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage of the United States”(White House, 2018).

The National Security Strategy adds two more useful key points to understand the steps taken by the Trump administration in this mandate. First, an increase in international competition does not directly mean conflict. And secondly, it points out that in their view the best way to prevent conflicts is by fostering an America that successfully competes. The same concept could be rearranged saying that the Trump administration aims at preserving peace through a strengthened armed forces to deter adversaries.

Focusing on the outer space domain, the 3-C environment definition outlined before became even more appropriate. The “democratization of space” has produced a relevant increase in the number of space actors since the beginning of the Obama administration. This trend has in turn saw the development of a wider range of Anti-satellite weapons to deter other powers from taking advantage of the increasing countries dependence on space assets (White House, 2018). Based on these considerations the priorities outlined in the National Security Strategy were: revitalizing the National Space Council to develop a strategy that integrates all space actors; update regulations for commercial space activity to strengthen U.S. competitiveness and increase public-private partnerships (PPP); improve the resilience of U.S. space architecture thanks to a new military branch, the U.S. Space Force.

A Budget Designed to Lead

The space budget skyrocketed under Trump. The whole space domain activities under the Department of Defense requested $18.0 billion. This huge budget included: $15.4 billion for the U.S. Space Force, $337 million for the Space Development Agency (SDA), and $249 million for the U.S. Space Command (Department of Defense, 2020). Donald Trump has inherited a budget for defense space activities of $7.1 billion and before the end of his mandate it climbed to almost $18 billion. This is a 250% budget increase in less than four years, meaning that the value perceived from the outer space activities exponentially increased with the Trump administration. On the other hand, the FY 2020 NASA’s budget was $22.629 billion, which represents 0.48% of the Federal U.S. Budget. For the third time in a row, there was an increase, this time reaching 5.3% (NASA, 2020).



This article has briefly presented the last twenty years of American space policy. The space sector changed considerably, from a state-only field to a variegated landscape of civil and military agencies, private investors, and private companies. Terrorism, the world economic crisis, and the democratization and commercialization of space are certainly key drivers of change that emerged. Space began to be defined as a 3-C environment (contested, congested, competitive) which pointed out the sharp increase in conflict risk associated with space activities. Not to forget that the U.S. during the Obama administration did not have direct access to space for their astronauts due to the decommission of the Space Shuttle. This forced international cooperation with the Russian agency ROSCOSMOS. Meanwhile, this very same factor pushed for a stronger private space sector thanks to a wave of Public-Private Partnerships which also became a structural pillar of the Trump administration.

The review outlines a sharp increase in the military space budget that has certainly influenced the posture of other major space-faring nations. A radical change at the White House could more easily make a difference to reverse this trend. It is not yet known what Biden’s election will entail for the space sector. However, a change in U.S. leadership may not be enough. Given this complex international environment and balance, the only certain fact is that the outer space domain has been gradually absorbed into the logic of the international system like any other domain before it.



ESPI, (2009). “The Need to Counter Space Terrorism – A European Perspective”, ESPI Perspectives N° 17, January 2009.<https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/124638/espi%20perspectives%2017.pdf>

Foust, J. (2017). “NASA receives more than $19.6 billion in 2017 omnibus spending bill”, SpaceNews.com, May 1, 2017.<https://spacenews.com/nasa-receives-more-than-19-6-billion-in-2017-omnibus-spending-bill/>

Moloney, P., Behrens, C., Morgan, D. (2006). “U.S. Space Programs: Civilian, Military, and Commercial”, June 13, 2006. p.10.

NASA, (2004). “Aeronautics and Space Report of the President Fiscal Year 2004 Activities”, p.120.<https://history.nasa.gov/presrep2004.pdf>

NASA, (2020). “NASA’s FY 2020 Budget”, nasa.gov, May 28, 2020.

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, (2011). “National Security Space Strategy” Unclassified Summary, January 2011.

Obama, B. (2008). “Advancing the Frontiers of Space Exploration”, BarackObama.com, August 2008. p.1

Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, (2016).  “Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Request”, February 2016. p.6-5

Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, (2020). “Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Request”, February 2020. p.5-2

White House, (2017). “National Security Strategy of the United States”, December 2017. p. 1-2


Autore dell’articolo*: Gabriel Lazazzara, esperto in politica spaziale del think tank Trinità dei Monti. Dottore magistrale in International Relations presso l’Università di Bologna.


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