Harris SpaceView
The change in aperture limits will move some larger imaging systems off of the U.S. Munitions List, and therefore will no longer be subject to ITAR. Credit: Harris

WASHINGTON — The federal government is taking more space-related items off of the most restrictive export control list, although some in industry believe the changes don’t go far enough.

The revised rules, published by the Departments of Commerce and State in the Federal Register Jan. 10, constitute tweaks to a major revision published in May 2014 that took many space items off the U.S. Munitions List (USML), governed by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). The changes take effect Jan. 15.

One of the biggest changes covers remote sensing systems. The May 2014 rule kept optical systems with apertures greater than 0.35 meters on the USML. The revised rule increases that threshold to 0.5 meters, with systems with smaller apertures moved to the Commerce Control List, a less restrictive export control system administered by the Commerce Department.

Industry, though, had sought a much larger increase in the aperture threshold, to 1.1 meters. The State Department, in its Federal Register filing, noted industry comments requesting the larger increase, but did not offer details on why it increased the threshold to only 0.5 meters.

“The Department acknowledges this comment and that aperture technology is evolving,” it stated in its notice, saying only that the increase it approved is designed “to reflect the current status of technology that provides the United States with a critical military or intelligence advantage and warrants control on the USML.”

Remy Nathan, vice president for international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association, said in a Jan. 11 statement to SpaceNews that the increase was “insufficient to support American industry’s competitiveness.” He noted some manufacturers outside the U.S. are already selling optical systems for satellites with apertures larger than 0.5 meters.

“To be market leaders, U.S. companies must be able to offer commercial solutions for international sales of imaging satellites with apertures larger than 0.5 meters,” Nathan said. “As it stands, the United States and its space industrial base are relegated to being market followers.”

Another change to the export control rules deal with crewed spacecraft. The May 2014 rule retained on the USML any spacecraft capable of carry people and which had integrated propulsion of some kind, regardless of any other technologies on the vehicle.

“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 State Department said when it published the May 2014 rule. “So, although these technologies and capabilities are used in commercial endeavors, they continue to merit control on the USML.”

Industry lobbied, though, to remove the language referring to human spaceflight, arguing it was not a useful way to judge whether a spacecraft has technology subject to export control, as its ability to support a crew had little relation to any weapon capability. “Using this in export control was both over- and under-inclusive,” said Mike Gold, chairman of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) and a long-time proponent of export control reform, in a Jan. 11 interview.

The revised rule published this week makes no mention of human spaceflight among criteria for space technology that should remain on the USML. However, such vehicles could have other technologies that keep them on the list and therefore would still be subject to ITAR.

The revised rule makes several other minor changes to technologies included on export control lists. It also shifts NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope from the USML to the Commerce Control List, after the State Department concluded that the space observatory “was within the scope of spacecraft and related items that did not warrant being subject to the ITAR.” JWST will require an export license as it will be shipped to French Guiana in 2018 for launch on an Ariane 5.

The Commerce Department, in its public notice about the changes, noted that the revised rule “completes the regulatory action for the interim final rule” that was issued in May 2014. However, those in industry argue that regular reviews of the contents of the export control list are needed to ensure that the technologies they include still require projection by either ITAR or the Commerce Department’s Export Administration Regulations.

The updates, though, are a sign of positive changes for people like Gold, who fought for export control reform for more than a decade. Now, he said, “The export control system is a beacon of common sense and responsiveness.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...