Last month, as previously noted here, the Obama Administration released a draft version of the revised Category XV of the US Munitions List (USML), which covers satellites and related components. The release of the draft version started a comment period that lasts until early July, after which officials will review the comments before making any final decisions on what items should remain on the USML and which should be taken off, a process that also requires Congressional notification.
As Space News reported Friday, the satellite industry largely sees the proposed revisions to Category XV as a net positive, although not without some concerns. In particular, they’re concerned about the inclusion in the revised USML of “Department of Defense-funded secondary or hosted payload”, which are government payloads—sensors or communications transponders, typically—incorporated onto commercial satellites as a secondary payload. “Categorizing by funding source, instead of the actual technology, is not smart, and probably not what the drafters intended,” an industry official told Space News.
The NewSpace industry is concerned about the inclusion of another items on the proposed Category XV: crewed suborbital spacecraft, which are included as part of the “man-rated sub-orbital, orbital, lunar, interplanetary or habitat” provision in the draft rules. For US companies developing suborbital vehicles, that would mean dealing with ITAR when trying to sell, or even operate, such vehicles outside the US, as well as sharing technical information about them to non-US persons.
Some in the industry as pushing against that provision. “We applaud the move to move commercial satellites off the Munitions List,” said Andrew Nelson, chief operating officer of XCOR Aerospace, in a speech at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) in Colorado on June 3. “However, they added to the Munitions List crewed space vehicles, and that is a backwards step.”
Nelson elaborated at a press conference at the NSRC later the same day. “It’s critically important for our country not to lose a competitive advantage before the market even opens,” he said. He noted that the share of commercial satellites manufactured by US companies dropped precipitously when such satellites were added to the USML in the late 1990s (although proving the cause-and-effect relationship has been difficult for the industry.) “There’s a ‘presumption of no’ if you get on the Munitions List,” he said. “It’s doing to us, potentially, what they did to the commercial satellite market.”
Nelson said that XCOR and other companies, as well as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, planned to submit comments regarding that provision in the draft Category XV list by July 8, when the comment period closes. He said the industry also has supporters in Congress that he believes will write “supporting letters” on their behalf. “We’re pushing on all of those strings, and hoping for the best.”