Those of you who have been following the NewSpace field for a while have probably heard plenty of griping about ITAR (the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations). Basically, ITAR handles the “export” of “defense articles” and “defense services”. Unfortunately, the way the law is written, exporting defense services is defined so loosely that theoretically they could throw you in jail for pointing an “evil-Canadian” to a specific page in Huzel and Huang to answer question about rockets that has been solved and in the public domain for decades. While the ostensible purpose of ITAR is to protect us from having dangerous weapons and weapons technologies exported to our potential enemies, the real result so far of ITAR has mostly been to stifle international collaboration on the commercial level, provide NASA and other agencies a fig-leaf to hide information from the public, prevent US companies from employing subject matter experts who happened to have been born on the wrong side of an arbitrary political border, basically subsidizing the creation of foreign competing industries who aren’t hampered by ITAR, and generally strangling the US space industry from being able to sell space-related technologies to even friendly countries outside our border. There’s a reason why people in the industry like to talk about export control laws in the US as being thoroughly ITARded.
Recently, industry and the military were able to get the attention of Congress and the White House on how damaging and counterproductive the current implementation of ITAR has been to both our industry and our defense capabilities. So, in one of the few recent examples of bipartisan effort resulting in something beneficial to our country, Congress gave the president permission to reevaluate what items should be listed on the US Munitions List (the list of items covered by ITAR). As Jeff Foust reported on Space Politics, the White House has now released its suggested changes to Category XV of the munitions list (the category that controls spacecraft), and corresponding changes to the Commerce Control List (which are controlled by the Commerce Department’s EAR regulations, which are much less onerous than ITAR, or at least so I’ve heard).
These suggested changes have been released on the Federal Register in what’s called a Notice of Public Rulemaking or NPRM. The point of NPRMs is to let the public know that the government is revising a regulation, and give them a reasonable amount of time to submit comments on the proposed changes, which the government is required to evaluate before releasing the actual final, legally-binding rule changes. The comment period for an NPRM is typically only 45 days, and the clock started ticking on this one over a week ago. It looks like the due date for comments is July 8th. I would strongly suggest that people who are impacted by ITAR (almost any company doing aerospace work) should try and find a way to make time to review these NPRMs and submit well thought-out and polite comments.
My concern is that while this NPRM does go a long way towards solve some of the key ITAR problems (particularly related to GEO communications satellites), it creates dangerous precedents in other areas–like forcing manned suborbital and orbital vehicles and satellite servicing robotics explicitly onto the munitions list. My worry is that by relieving the pain of the most vocal, and financially well-established part of the space community (GEO commsats) while leaving the rest of us in the lurch, I worry that this will completely kill any impetus for further repair of ITAR for many years. Basically, this may be the community’s only chance to fix some of this damage, because if we don’t, those of us in the satellite servicing and manned spaceflight industries will be battling ITAR without the help and clout of the commercial communications industry on our side like we have this time. And it would be a travesty if something like Lynx or Dragon (or Sticky Boom™) were continued to be treated as dangerously as say a ballistic missile, a supersonic fighter jet, or a main battle tank. While all of these may be “dual-use” in some fashion, that’s what the EAR was meant to deal with–not ITAR, which was meant to deal specifically for systems whose primary use is military.
I’ll admit that these proposed changes are a real slog–I’m not even sure if the people who wrote these fully understand what they’re trying to accomplish. Reading through these and providing a thoughtful reply is a real time commitment that few of us can make lightly. I also imagine that several of the bigger players in the community like XCOR, VG, SpaceX, etc may be planning on reviewing these proposed rules and submitting changes already. So why post this blog post? Because I strongly feel that the addition of a large number of well-reasoned and well-thought-out responses from the public could actually make a difference in making sure that this rule change is a “three steps forward” change, and not a “two steps forward and one and a half steps back” for the industry. This may be our only shot we get for a long time.