The document, the first full revision of overall space policy in 10 years, emphasizes security issues, encourages private enterprise in space, and characterizes the role of U.S. space diplomacy largely in terms of persuading other nations to support U.S. policy.
"Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power," the policy asserts in its introduction.
National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said in written comments that an update was needed to "reflect the fact that space has become an even more important component of U.S. economic, national and homeland security." The military has become increasingly dependent on satellite communication and navigation, as have providers of cellphones, personal navigation devices and even ATMs.
The administration said the policy revisions are not a prelude to introducing weapons systems into Earth orbit. "This policy is not about developing or deploying weapons in space. Period," said a senior administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Nevertheless, Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank that follows the space-weaponry issue, said the policy changes will reinforce international suspicions that the United States may seek to develop, test and deploy space weapons. The concerns are amplified, he said, by the administration's refusal to enter negotiations or even less formal discussions on the subject.
"The Clinton policy opened the door to developing space weapons, but that administration never did anything about it," Krepon said. "The Bush policy now goes further."
Theresa Hitchens, director of the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information in Washington, said that the new policy "kicks the door a little more open to a space-war fighting strategy" and has a "very unilateral tone to it."
Clinton's top goals were to "enhance knowledge of the Earth, the solar system and the universe through human and robotic exploration" and to "strengthen and maintain the national security of the United States."
The Clinton policy also said that the United States would develop and operate "space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space" only when such steps would be "consistent with treaty obligations." The Bush policy accepts current international agreements but states: "The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space."
A number of nations have pushed for talks to ban space weapons, and the United States has long been one of a handful of nations opposed to the idea. Although it had abstained in the past when proposals to ban space weapons came up in the United Nations, last October the United States voted for the first time against a call for negotiations -- the only "no" against 160 "yes" votes.
The U.S. position flows in part from the fact that so many key weapons systems are now dependent on information and communications from orbiting satellites, analysts said. The U.S. military has developed and deployed far more space-based technology than any other nation, giving it great strategic advantages. But with the superior technology has come a perceived vulnerability to attacks on essential satellites.
The new policy was applauded by defense analyst Baker Spring of the conservative Heritage Foundation. He said that he supported the policy's rejection of international agreements or treaties, as well as its emphasis on protecting military assets and placing missile defense components in space. He also said that he liked the policy's promotion of commercial enterprises in space and its apparent recognition that private satellites will need military protection as well.
The issue of possible hostilities in space became more real last month when National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald M. Kerr told reporters that a U.S. satellite had recently been "painted," or illuminated, by a laser in China. Gen. James E. Cartwright, the top U.S. military officer in charge of operations in space, told the newsletter Inside the Pentagon last week that it remained unclear whether China had tried to disrupt the satellite.