Thoughts from NSRC 2013: Export controls, suborbital space vehicles and next steps

Just a quick note while I have a moment to stop and reflect in the thick of NSRC 2013. Specifically, I want to address some new rules being proposed by the US State Department on export controls for manned suborbital space vehicles designed for commercial spaceflight.

At the end of May, the Department of State published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (or NPRM) Rule 78 FR 31 444 (pdf)– that did a great thing. The DoS proposed a move of commercial satellites from the US Department of Defense (DoD) Munitions List to the Department of Commerce’s commerce control list (CCL).  This is a great step for the industry. Since the time commercial satellites were placed on the munitions list in 1999, the commercial satellite industry was almost wiped out.

As the Aerospace Industries Association clearly illustrates in its fact sheet on US Satellite Manufacturing Job Losses (pdf), the US commercial satellite industry lost over 250,000 jobs. Market share dropped from a dominant position greater than 60%, down to bare relevance at under 30% by 2008 (and less today). The impact on the US launcher community was greater, as it is now practically non-existent. The US does not launch commercial satellites, they are launched elsewhere. Again, more than a quarter of a million jobs were lost mainly due to these restrictions.

Unfortunately, there were some “not so good” inclusions in the Department of State NPRM … it has explicitly proposed to put manned commercial space flight vehicles on the Department of Defense Munitions List. This is the same backward path provided to the US satellite manufacturing and launch community two decades ago that almost decimated that industry.

However, even before we can achieve a meaningful sized global market, and dominate it with US companies, there is the real possibility that we will be hampered before the market is fully opened. The benefits that have a real potential of not being realized are high tech job creation in rural, underserved, and hard hit regions of our country (by necessity, these vehicles are flown in remote areas); creation of a global, multi-billion dollar suborbital space-science research and personal spaceflight industry led by US companies; and the very large influence that these operations will have on our children through enhanced STEM opportunities. We will be turning over the lead to non-US companies.

Let’s push together to move the proposed rules in a better direction. Write to the State Department before July 8th and tell them to move suborbital manned vehicles to the Commerce Control List.

Via the U.S. Department of State:

“Interested parties may submit comments within 45 days of the date of publication by one of the following methods.

• Email DDTCResponseTeam@state.gov with the subject line ‘‘ITAR Amendment—USML Category XV and Defense Services.’’
• Internet: At www.regulations.gov, search for this notice by using this rule’s RIN (1400–AD33).”