WASHINGTON — A White House official said space-related export reforms being pushed by U.S. President Barack Obama would not harm U.S. national security but could not specify a release date for a long-overdue report that is expected to help get the process moving on Capitol Hill.

“We’re not decontrolling anything,” said Brian Nilsson, director of Non-Proliferation Export Controls for the White House National Security Council of the U.S. export control policy. “There would be no export to embargo destinations,” and China would remain ineligible to trade for either military or so-called dual-use technologies from the United States, he said.

Dual-use technologies can have both military and nonmilitary applications.

Nilsson, the administration’s export reform point person, spoke here Oct. 13 at a meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Council, a group that makes policy recommendations to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. He was part of a panel that also included Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a commercial space advocate and staunch critic of China.

The Obama administration is in the midst of a years-long push to switch many of the items on the U.S. Munitions List (USML) to the Commerce Control List (CCL). The State Department has export licensing jurisdiction for items on the USML, while the Commerce Department licenses exports of CCL items — the dual-use technologies. The move would be a step toward the administration’s goal of bringing export licensing under the roof of a single U.S. agency.

All U.S. commercial satellites and related components have been grouped under Category 15 of the USML since 1999. Congress mandated the shift, even for widely available commercial satellite hardware, from the CCL amid allegations that China was perfecting its missile technology through launches of U.S. commercial communications satellites.

It would require an act of Congress for the administration to remove those items from the USML, as it can legally do with other technologies on the State Department’s list, provided it serves Congress with notice.

Nilsson said the Obama administration could not productively press for a change in that statute until it completes an ongoing review — now 18 months overdue — of Category 15 items.

Based on conversations with congressional officials, Nilsson said, “there seems to be interest in seeking legislation” to enable moving satellite technology to the CCL. “They’re looking for us to bring the appropriate report to do that.”

That report is due out “in the fall,” Nilsson said.

Rohrabacher said he would support the transfer of certain satellites and components to Commerce’s jurisdiction as long as U.S. arms embargos are not violated, and China is explicitly barred from importing any U.S. satellite technology.

Rohrabacher, who has been a vocal proponent of nurturing a commercial spaceflight industry in the United States, said allowing exports of U.S. satellite hardware to China would undermine that goal.

“We’re trying to build now a commercial rocket industry,” Rohrabacher said. “One thing that will really strangle it is if we let the Chinese come in using … a totally subsidized system that’s tied directly to their military in competition with our new commercial space groups; we will strangle the baby in the cradle.”

Remy Nathan, vice president for International Affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group here, said current export control laws could ensnare a key sector of the emerging commercial spaceflight industry.

“It isn’t just the commercial satellites,” Nathan said. “It’s also commercial space tourism. There is the possibility, depending on how you interpret them, that a passenger on a commercial spaceflight is going to have to treat sitting in that chair as an ITAR experience.”

ITAR refers to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the U.S. protocols for importing and exporting items on the USML.

That was enough for Rohrabacher, at least, to suggest that Chinese nationals be barred from purchasing seats on commercial space tourism flights. “Not everybody should be treated the same,” he said.

Besides moving export licensing for some technologies out of State’s jurisdiction, the White House also wants a wholesale overhaul of the licensing process. For this, the administration wants to create a single licensing agency cobbled together from parts of the Commerce, State and Treasury departments.

Nilsson said the administration has drafted legislation that, if introduced and then passed by Congress, would allow the executive branch to create such an entity. However, “we haven’t decided when we’re going to introduce it,” he said.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.