Navigating Norms for the New Space Era


Feb 8, 2021

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket launches from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 30, 2020, photo by Frank Michaux/NASA

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V 541 rocket launches at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 30, 2020

Photo by Frank Michaux/NASA

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on February 7, 2021.

To make better progress on global norms for responsible behavior in space, the U.S. defense and intelligence communities might first consider reaching a consensus among themselves on what these norms should be. The warfighters and the collectors have different missions and priorities that have resulted in a lack of agreement on standards. Until they reconcile those differences and identify which space norms they collectively support, and which measures they want to avoid, the United States will be less likely to be in a position to play a leadership role in forging international support for so-called norms. Space norms are informal rules that can include best practices to international agreements, or legally binding measures.

Since the Chinese 2007 anti-satellite test that increased by roughly ten percent a half-century of space debris in low earth orbit (LEO), the global community has called for more responsible behavior in space. More than a decade of discussion later, the broad Outer Space Treaty and a few associated agreements and conventions from the Cold War era are still the only binding pacts.

U.S. officials have recently increased their public discourse about the need for norms. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense's 2020 Defense Space Strategy (PDF) seeks to “ensure space stability” by, in part, promoting standards and norms of behavior in space favorable to United States, allied, and partner interests. Current U.S. Space Force Planning Guidance (PDF) also promotes shaping norms of behavior that enhance national security and reduce the opportunity for a competitor or potential adversary to misinterpret intent. It later notes “the current lack of equivalent norms in space allows actors to operate at any location in the domain and at any distance from other spacecraft.”

Despite their inclusion in recent strategy and guidance, these views are not particularly new to U.S. space policy, further highlighting the need for new space norms tied to specific behavior.

The complexity of global politics and the growing number of civilian and commercial entities with interests in space certainly make establishing norms a challenge. But those issues are only part of the problem. In the United States, national security space (NSS) clearly supersedes civilian and commercial space interests, yet the collective NSS community does not agree on what new space norms it could support. Adding to the urgency of action is not just the need for international norms but commercial norms. This lack of U.S. government consensus is happening when many private companies have been looking to the federal government for leadership on the issue as well as on space traffic management—even as they have been developing their own informal “rules of the road” to avoid conjunctions.…

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Chad J. R. Ohlandt is a senior engineer focusing on defense acquisition, force employment, and technology policy at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Bruce McClintock is the lead of the RAND Space Enterprise Initiative, a virtual center that provides a focal point for all RAND space-related research, for the U.S. government and U.S. allies. McClintock joined RAND in 2016 after retiring from the Air Force as a brigadier general. Stephen J. Flanagan is a senior political scientist RAND. He served in several senior positions in government, most recently as special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and strategy at the National Security Council (NSC) Staff from 2013 to 2015.

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