If it has not already done so, the U.S. State Department should immediately grant NASA and its contractors an exemption from U.S. technology-export regulations for work related to assembly of the international space station.

Coordinating the activities of 16 nations on one of the most complex integration projects ever undertaken is difficult enough without having to go through a bureaucratic rigamarole for each new task that comes up. The current U.S. export regime, known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, is onerous enough in and of itself. As a former Pentagon official who helped draft the current regulations recently admitted, their enforcement has been a case study in unintended consequences, with no apparent U.S. national security benefits and disastrous results for the U.S. space-hardware industry.

Coming on top of the language, cultural and technical differences that NASA and its international space station partners must overcome, the rules are intolerable.

With the scheduled on-orbit arrival of Europe’s Columbus laboratory, a key section of the Japanese Experiment Module and Europe’s first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) cargo carrier, 2007 is shaping up as perhaps the most challenging year yet in space station assembly. The last thing NASA and its contractors need during this orbital high-wire act is to have to file paperwork with the State Department whenever they run into any of the myriad unanticipated issues that inevitably will arise.

At minimum, fulfilling export compliance requirements is bound to cause unnecessary delays, something NASA can ill afford if it is to retire the space shuttle — the primary tool for space station assembly — by 2010 as called for in U.S. President George W. Bush’s space exploration policy.

Safety also is at stake, according to the congressionally commissioned International Space Station Independent Safety Task Force.

In its report, released Feb. 26, the panel said the ATV presents a particularly daunting challenge because it requires the close coordination between Russian, U.S. and European ground-control facilities during unprecedented on-orbit maneuvers that cannot be rehearsed on the ground. Plans call for testing the 20-ton ATV at some distance from the space station before it is brought in to dock with a Russian module, but as the report notes, the European ground-control station in Toulouse, France, is new, and two previous on-orbit rendezvous missions using different hardware — one Japanese, the other U.S. — ran into problems.

To safely test and dock the ATV, the partners need to be able to interact freely, something the current U.S. export rules do not allow, according to the panel, which was chaired by Tommy Holloway, former NASA space station program manager. “If some relief is not forthcoming … delays in critical capability, mission success and potential loss of hardware are possible,” the report said.

In mid March, European Space Agency officials acknowledged that the launch dates for the ATV and Columbus module had shifted from this summer to September and December, respectively. There is always the strong possibility that the launch of some or all of the non-U.S. station components will slip into next year. But this does not remove any urgency from the matter of export-control exemptions. The international technical interchange necessary for the safe integration of these components does not begin when they are launched. Moreover, according to sources, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for relief some two months ago.

If this drags on much longer, President Bush should push the necessary administrative buttons to get it resolved in NASA’s favor. It is the least he could do considering that the exemptions would support his own space exploration policy, enhance safety and perhaps even free up State Department licensing officials to deal with applications that are still taking far too long to process.