WASHINGTON — Members of an industry group that advises the U.S. government on commercial space matters are in broad agreement that export restrictions on commercial human spacecraft should be eased, but sharply disagreed at a recent meeting on how to seek those changes.
The export reform debate at an April 1 meeting of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) here revealed a lack of consensus on specific steps to remove manned commercial spacecraft from the jurisdiction of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
ITAR is the set of rules governing exports of militarily sensitive items on the U.S. Munitions List (USML) and tends to be highly restrictive. Reforms enacted last year by the Obama administration moved many commercial satellites and components to the less restrictive Commerce Control List, but any space tourism vehicles — orbital or suborbital — equipped with propulsion systems were unaffected by the shift.
The U.S. State Department, in its release last May of the revised Category 15 of the Munitions List, made the case for keeping commercial human spaceflight vehicles where they are. “Spacecraft specially designed for human space flight that have integrated propulsion present another security concern, for such capabilities may be used for the purposes of weapons targeting from space,” the department said at the time.
COMSTAC members generally agreed such spacecraft should be moved from ITAR control. “The U.S. space industry will benefit from placing human spaceflight systems under the auspices of the Export Administration Regulations,” which are administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce, said Mark Sundahl, a Cleveland State University law professor and chairman of COMSTAC’s International Space Policy Working Group.
The benefits, he said, include more rapid licensing and avoiding the “stigma” of being associated with ITAR. “Industry would be better off if they’re able to market their spacecraft as being non-ITAR,” he said.
Sundahl initially proposed a recommendation to remove from the Munitions List commercial orbital human spacecraft that met very specific technical requirements. Those criteria included lacking a guidance system capable of sensing a space object at ranges of 1 kilometer or less.
Some COMSTAC members opposed that recommendation, largely because of its specific technical details. “I think it’s a level of specificity that I’m not comfortable with as a COMSTAC member,” said Patricia Cooper, vice president for government affairs and policy at satellite operator Intelsat. In her previous position as president of the Satellite Industry Association, Cooper was a leading advocate for space-related export control reforms.
Cooper suggested that COMSTAC instead recommend that the FAA work with industry to identify characteristics of such vehicles that could make them more amenable to being removed from the USML, and then discuss those characteristics in interagency meetings on export control reform. The committee later approved that recommendation.
A second proposed recommendation dealing with suborbital vehicles generated more debate within the committee. The initial form of that recommendation said the FAA should advocate for moving “piloted, unarmed commercial suborbital spacecraft” off the Munitions List if they have an FAA license or experimental permit.
COMSTAC members, though, were split on whether having people on board, either as crew or customers, should be a factor in moving the vehicle off the Munitions List.
“Not all suborbital systems will necessarily have a crew,” said Brett Alexander, director of business development and strategy for Blue Origin of Kent, Washington. That company is developing the New Shepard suborbital vehicle that, at least during test flights, does not require a crew on board.
Others, though, argued that the piloted distinction was needed to win government support for the change. “As soon as you take the people out, you’ve got a missile,” said Jeff Greason, chairman of XCOR Aerospace. XCOR’s Lynx suborbital vehicle under development is a piloted vehicle.
The committee, during its deliberations, edited the proposal to recommend that unarmed commercial suborbital vehicles “particularly if controlled by an onboard pilot” be removed from ITAR’s jurisdiction. “It may not be perfect, but it’s a starting point,” said COMSTAC member Livingston Holder of Holder Aerospace.
COMSTAC ultimately approved the recommendation, but on a rare split vote, with nine voting in favor and eight opposed. Alexander, who voted against the recommendation, asked if COMSTAC wanted to accept that recommendation given the division within the committee.
COMSTAC Chairman Mike Gold, director of Washington operations and business growth for Bigelow Aerospace, said he would emphasize the split vote in any future discussions with the FAA or other agencies about the recommendation. “I will make very clear that this was a split vote and there was a great deal of controversy, and hopefully dilute some of the concerns of those who voted against it,” he said.
Gold, a longtime advocate of space-related export control reform, said he supported the recommendation even though he was skeptical it would be successful. “Frankly, anything we can throw up against the wall that might stick, or lead to a conversation for getting something off the USML” is a good thing, he said.