Lobbying, Other

Tweaking the proposed export control reforms for hosted payloads and suborbital vehicles

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.”

6 comments to Tweaking the proposed export control reforms for hosted payloads and suborbital vehicles

  • Hiram

    The impact of ITAR on NewSpace was something I hadn’t completely considered. Putting crewed spacecraft on the munitions list could seriously impact their business plans, and leave NASA as the only game in town for purchase of their products. I do recall that even public issuance of the Payload Users Guides for the suborbital vehicles was being held up by ITAR. I think that Bigelow spent over $1M on ITAR compliance. The recent issue with the Falcon 9 engine shutdown was kept under wraps for several weeks in order to comply with ITAR regulations.

    Of course, these same regulations can put more business in the U.S. launch industry. It’s going to be that much harder to buy Long March launches from the Chinese if you have to hand over sensitive technology to them to bolt on top of the rocket. That could be a benefit to commercial space enterprises.

  • E.P, Grondine

    Hi Hiram –

    I did not know about any ITAR issue with info on the F9 engine shutdown.

    The heat shielding on manned spacecraft may have uses as heat shielding for ballistic payloads, so I can see the problems there.

    What I have been following is the effects on the sale and use of PHO detecting small sats. Due to its search method and algorithms Canada’s NEOSsat will likely not be sold, so while it is not an immediate issue, the same does not hold for other PHO detection small sats.

    • Coastal Ron

      E.P, Grondine said:

      I did not know about any ITAR issue with info on the F9 engine shutdown.

      When Gwynne Shotwell was asked about the details concerning the engine shutdown at a NASA public briefing, she said that SpaceX had to be careful what it could say because of ITAR.

      • Malmesbury

        In ITARWorld, the nightmare is the Loral scenario – info on how to fix something ends up helping someone’s military program. Allegedly.

        So everything has to go through expensive lawyers.

        This is why “Distribution of pressure over model of the upper wing and aileron of a Fokker D-VII airplane, Fairbanks”, A J, NACA, 1927 is no longer on the NTRS server. A lawyer would have to write a brief on why this wouldn’t help the Chinese build better biplane fighters….

    • Hiram

      NEOSsat has no U.S. components. It’s a Canadian/Indian/German mission, I believe. So U.S. State Department regulations are irrelevant to it. Canada has it’s own controlled technology lists and export controls, however. It would be interesting to understand how those regulations and the constraints engendered by them compare to those of ITAR.

  • I have to wonder if this is an attempt by OldSpace to strangle NewSpace in the crib.

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