Pentagon Issues First Memo on Space Norms

September 2021

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has issued a memo mandating that the Pentagon follow a set of guidelines regarding responsible space operations and adherence to international space norms. This is the first time that the department has taken this kind of official step, rather than less formal verbal commitments, to set norms of behavior in space, although experts say the guidelines represent only a first step.

The July 7 memo specifies five “tenets of responsible behavior,” which include calls for ensuring safety, limiting the release of long-lasting space debris, avoiding harmful interference, maintaining safe separation from other humans or objects, and maintaining communication.

The guidelines apply only to Defense Department space operations, but are intended to contribute to a broader dialogue involving civilian, commercial, and other organizations that conduct space-related business, according to John Hill, acting assistant defense secretary for space policy. “We will make more progress through efforts to share views on what we think are the best practices and encourage each other to adopt those best practices,” Hill told Space News on July 16.

A majority of experts welcomed Austin’s memo, reported Breaking Defense, which first broke the news on July 19. “I think it’s actually a pretty good start to identifying and formalizing what [the Pentagon] sees as norms of behavior,” remarked Victoria Samson, head of Secure World Foundation’s Washington office.

The guidelines may be part of a larger Pentagon effort to set the agenda on space norms. In February, a U.S. space commander announced that officials from the State and Defense departments were in the process of drafting proposed language for a binding resolution regarding responsible behavior in space. (See ACT, April 2021.)—HOLLIS RAMMER