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Export Regime Keeping Virgin Galactic in the U.S., for Now

Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson with New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez at Spaceport America. Credit: Virgin Galactic photo by Mark Greenberg

LONDON — Virgin Group Chairman Sir Richard Branson said Dec. 3 that U.S. technology-export rules will prevent Virgin Galactic’s space tourism business from operating outside the United States until the company receives a specific waiver.

Addressing the European Space Solutions conference in London, Branson said the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) effectively will keep Virgin Galactic on U.S. territory only, starting with its New Mexico spaceport, at least for the time being.

Branson said the company intends eventually to seek the necessary export licenses to operate its SpaceShipTwo craft from non-U.S. sites, but that this will require a special regulatory effort with the U.S. government.

ITAR rules as currently applied class numerous space-related hardware items as weapons for export purposes.

SpaceShipTwo is not a space vehicle in the usual sense of the term. The rocket-propelled craft is designed fly to the edge of the atmosphere following deployment from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft to give customers a look at the curvature of the Earth and several minutes of low-gravity conditions. Nonetheless, like parachute landing systems for planetary missions and many commercial satellite technologies, it is covered by ITAR.

Branson said, however, that for Virgin Galactic, ITAR restrictions are more than offset by the U.S. government’s regulatory regime for commercial suborbital spaceflight, which has helped the fledgling industry. Branson urged European governments to look at what the U.S. government has done and then do likewise, the better to stimulate an industry that Branson — who registered the name Virgin Galactic more than 20 years ago — said is about to take off.

Virgin Galactic has collected deposits from more than 560 people willing to pay $200,000 to ride in SpaceShipTwo. Branson said the company expects the price to come “down, down and down” as the system reaches its flight rhythm. First flights are scheduled for 2013.

The United Arab Emirates’ Aabar Investments sovereign-wealth fund in 2009 invested $280 million for a 32 percent stake in Virgin Galactic.

In a Nov. 29 presentation in London to the Global Milsatcom conference, organized by SMi Group, a United Arab Emirates armed forces official said his nation still expects to be a Virgin Galactic spaceport host.

Mohamed N. Alahbabi, space adviser to the United Arab Emirates military, said the Virgin Galactic investment is intended “to take vehicles, satellites and travelers to orbit” using the Virgin Galactic system.

The Swedish government has said it will invest in a refurbishment of its Esrange sounding-rocket and stratospheric-balloon facility near Kiruna, in northern Sweden, to accommodate Virgin Galactic flights.

David Willetts, Britain’s minister for universities and science, who leads the nation’s space policy, said he would be advocating within Britain so that the regulatory regime accommodates Virgin Galactic.

In a briefing with journalists in London Dec. 3, Willetts said it would be “embarrassing” if SpaceShipTwo were able to operate from Sweden and the United Arab Emirates but not from Britain because of regulatory hurdles.

Antonio Tajani, vice president of the commission of the 27-nation European Union and head of the commission’s directorate for industry and entrepreneurship, told the briefing that Europe should be able to craft a regulatory framework that would welcome Virgin Galactic.

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