Concerns raised by two Virginia lawmakers about a NASA-funded effort in which engineers from Britain’s Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) are teaching the basics of small satellite design to faculty at Mississippi State University appear to have more to do with narrow parochial interests than U.S. national security.
Reps. Frank Wolf and Randy Forbes, both Republicans, have cited SSTL’s dealings with China in asking NASA to pull the plug on the project, in which the organizations are designing a small lunar mission. In a Nov. 6 letter to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, the pair said: “We are concerned that NASA funding is going directly to a foreign company with a record of aiding the Chinese military expansion into space.” They also warned that the arrangement would lead to U.S. technical know-how falling into Chinese hands.
The first claim could be applied to anyone who has supplied a satellite – or a computer, for that matter – to China. The list includes U.S. satellite companies, who competed aggressively for Chinese business before a change in U.S. government policy shut them out of that market in 1999.
SSTL has in fact built small satellites for Chinese institutions – as it has for numerous countries around the world – and no doubt
shared some of its expertise in the process. But to suggest that these small-scale scientific programs are part of a gathering threat to U.S. national security is a bit of hyperbole, to put it mildly.
Regarding the claim about the flow of technology, the lawmakers have it backwards, as NASA Administrator Mike
Griffin pointed out in his response. It is Mississippi State University that will benefit from the expertise that has made SSTL arguably the world’s most successful builder of small satellites. At a time of constant hand wringing in the United States about the dearth of young people training for careers in aerospace engineering, and the negative implications for the U.S. economy and military, the SSTL-Mississippi State arrangement seems like an odd target for lawmakers purportedly concerned about these matters.
Reps. Wolf’s and Forbes’
complaint that U.S. companies were not given a chance to bid for the work suggests their primary motive.
It just so happens that Virginia, specifically Wolf’s district, is home to two satellite makers, one of which – AeroAstro of Ashburn
– competes head-to-head with SSTL for small satellite work.
The work in question is hardly a major contract; it entails $2 million that was part of a larger congressional earmark disbursed through
NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, which has ties to the university. The selection of SSTL was made by the university, and if the work were to somehow blossom into an actual mission it would not be at NASA’s expense, as Mr. Griffin has made clear.
But it likely would provide a golden opportunity for Mississippi State faculty and students to participate, perhaps by providing a spacecraft sensor.
If Reps. Wolf and Forbes, who serve on the House Appropriations and Armed Services committees, respectively, want to help the fortunes of U.S. satellite companies they should work to marshal Republican support for the reform of U.S. export rules. These regulations, which were tightened specifically to curb satellite trade with China – but have since been applied in ways that have had a much broader impact on U.S. industry – have done real damage to American competitiveness in the global marketplace. The Mississippi State-SSTL project, in its own small way, would do just the opposite. Mississippi State should be applauded, not disparaged, for trying to give its students some of the tools they will need to compete in a highly competitive global industry.