Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas has petitioned the U.S. government for a change in the export licensing jurisdiction for the inflatable module technology that is the basis of the commercial space habitat the company plans to deploy in the coming years.
The startup company, founded by motel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, hopes to get the technology removed from the U.S. Munitions List, a registry of items subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and whose exports are licensed by the U.S. Department of State. The so-called commodities jurisdiction request, if granted, would place the modules under the less-stringent licensing regime of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“Technology that is widely commercially available should not be on the ITAR. It is a perversion of congressional intent and it is counterproductive in terms of national security, not to mention the financial impact it has,” Bigelow attorney Michael Gold told Space News. “We believe this request is important not just for Bigelow Aerospace but for the wider community.”
Bigelow filed its
commodity jurisdiction request
Dec. 27 with the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls.
A State Department official declined comment, citing the proprietary nature of commodity jurisdiction requests.
Congress placed all communications
satellites on the Munitions List via
the Strom Thurmond National
Defense Authorization Act of 1999 following allegations that China was benefiting militarily from launching U.S. spacecraft.
the State Department’s interpretation of the law — that it covers virtually all space-related components —
is overly broad.
“What Congress wanted covered was advanced telecom satellites and related systems,” Gold
interpretation, he said,
”has led us to the nonsensical state we are in today,” where widely available commercial items are treated like weapons.
For example, a stand used for the company’s Genesis module was “modified to fit with Genesis” and the State Department decided it was governed by ITAR. “We had to have two guards on the stand for 24 hours. It’s this kind of irrationality that we find despicable,” Gold said.
State should “follow
the will of Congress and only apply ITAR to advanced telecommunications satellites and related components and not to the Bigelow inflatable habitats,” Gold said. “Hopefully,
this could be a precedent that would alleviate the problems we all face in the export of space components.”
While several sources voiced support for Bigelow’s bid
, there was little optimism it would succeed.
“Even though this would be really helpful for the country and space in general, I can’t see much upside for the first regulator at State who sticks out their neck and takes this approach,” said one source familiar with national security space issues.
A congressional aide familiar with ITAR was more blunt
: “Not a chance. State won’t take such a momentous action as a [commodities jurisdiction change]
, even as the nose under the tent.”
Joel Johnson, a veteran ITAR watcher and executive director for international affairs at the Teal Group, a market research firm in Fairfax, Va.
, said it was difficult to tell whether Bigelow’s hardware would qualify as space-related
as defined by the law.
Bigelow “has a shot,” Johnson said, though he
was not optimistic.
negative decision may help the industry in the long run, Johnson said. “If State comes down against them, then they have a good argument for changing the law,” he said.
Getting changes to the ITAR approved is extremely difficult, even for other parts of the government.
For example, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin petitioned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a year ago seeking some streamlining of the steps needed to comply with the ITAR regulations. NASA spokesman David Steitz said no such relief has been granted, but added that the agency continues to work with the State Depart
ment “to address potential concerns.”