WASHINGTON — The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is starting a review of a decade-old policy that discourages the use of Indian launch vehicles by American companies, an official said Oct. 20.

Samuel duPont, a director in the USTR’s international trade and development office, told a working group of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) that demand by American companies for commercial launch services had led the office to start a review a policy that has been in place since 2005.

That policy, implemented through export control licensing, “discourages U.S. commercial satellite operators from purchasing launch services from Indian launch companies,” duPont said at a meeting of COMSTAC’s International Space Policy Working Group here Oct. 20. That policy specifically affects the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), India’s space agency, which builds and operates launch vehicles.

The current policy dates back to 2005, when the U.S. was trying to encourage India to sign a commercial space launch agreement. Such an agreement, similar to ones the U.S. signed in the early 1990s with China, Russia and Ukraine, was intended to “ensure ISRO adhered to market-oriented practices in the commercial launch sector,” he said. Those earlier agreements, which expired by the late 1990s, included quotas on the number of commercial launches those countries could perform and guidelines on prices they could charge.

However, negotiations on such an agreement with India broke down in 2010. “It became clear that there was no path forward that was going to satisfy both our position and India’s position,” duPont said. “We haven’t had any further engagement with India on an agreement since 2010.”

With a launch agreement effectively abandoned, duPont said growing demand for commercial launches led USTR to reconsider its current policy. “We have been approached by U.S. satellite operators and manufacturers who have complained to us about a shortage of launch services,” he said. He did not disclose what companies were interested in Indian commercial launches.

USTR is just starting the review, and duPont said there was no formal schedule for completing it and making any change in current policy. Of particular interest to the office is any pricing information on Indian launches. “We’re interested in any information on how ISRO has been pricing its services and whether they have, in a broader sense, [been] behaving as a private company would in the industry,” he said, adding that the USTR had no evidence of unfair pricing of Indian launches.

MOM launch ISRO
A PSLV rocket launched ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission in November 2013. Credit: ISRO
A PSLV rocket launched ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission in November 2013. Credit: ISRO

India has been seeking a greater share of the commercial launch market in recent years, primarily through its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). India’s government approved a budget earlier this year that funds the construction of 15 PSLV rockets between 2017 and 2020 to meet what ISRO anticipates to be growing commercial demand for the vehicle.

That interest has included some U.S. companies. A PSLV launch in September included, as secondary payloads, four small satellites built by San Francisco-based Spire. Spaceflight Services, a Seattle company that brokers secondary payload opportunities, arranged for that launch. Company officials did not respond to a request for comment regarding what effect, if any, current U.S. policy had on arranging that mission.

Some COMSTAC members raised questions at the meeting about any potential change in policy. Of particular concern was the possibility that U.S. launch providers might have to compete with a foreign space agency.

“We have, as national policy, that we don’t allow our own space organization to compete with our private launch providers,” said Jeff Greason, chief technology officer of XCOR Aerospace. “I don’t understand why we have correctly determined that’s bad public policy, but it’s perfectly fine for other national space agencies to compete with our private launch providers.”

DuPont said the policy was not based on whether or not Indian launch services were provided by government agencies, but instead how those services were marketed. “ISRO could be behaving as a free market enterprise would,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to discover through this process.”

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...