ITAR Emergency

Yesterday at the #NSRC2013 meeting, Andrew Nelson, COO of XCOR, announced both in his talk and at a noon press conference that there was good news and bad news on the ITAR front. The good news is that communications satellites were moved back from the munitions list to the commercial list, for the first time in about a decade and a half. That’s good news for the US comsat industry, which has lost almost all of its business to other countries since the late nineties when they had been declared munitions.

The bad new is that suborbital vehicles, such as XCOR’s Lynx, have been put on the munitions list, which will make it much harder for the companies making them to export them. Imagine the impact on US exports if Boeing commercial transports were moved to the munitions list…

But the good news is that neither of these decisions are final — there is a public review period of this rule making for the next few weeks. It’s a good opportunity for anyone, not just affected industry, to weigh in, and try to get the latter decision reversed. Jon Goff (who I saw at the conference today) explains the stakes (and the danger):

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.

Make your own voice heard while there’s still time.

12 thoughts on “ITAR Emergency”

  1. Next: Private citizens don’t have a need for suborbital weapons. It doesn’t take a rocket to kill a deer.

  2. Is this punishment because they moved to Texas? They should just ignore the ruling and sell a Lynx to South Korea anyway. What judge or jury would realistically call South Korea a threat?

  3. There’s a good free book on Amazon which does a libertarian/Heinleinian riff on private launch. Full disclosure, it’s first of a series and has the ever popular “cliff-hanger” ending. Hooked me for the series.
    America One (Book One).

  4. Note that this proposed rule also munitions-lists “man-rated orbital spacecraft”. Whoever came up with THAT bright idea may end up selling more Soyuz seats than the Roscosmos sales department. I assume SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada will have comments. Not to mention Blue Origin.

      1. Yeah, yeah – that occurred to me also. But I doubt anyone at State cares about the nuances of NASA “man-rated”. They’ll be enforcing the new rule, and absent risky legal battles and ruinous lawyer bills, it will mean what they say it means. Which from context, is “human-carrying.”

  5. it creates dangerous precedents in other areas–like forcing manned suborbital and orbital vehicles and satellite servicing robotics explicitly onto the munitions list.

    While I fail to see any valid justification for putting the manned vehicles onto the controlled munitions list, I see many military applications for satellite servicing robotic vehicles. While they can potentially repair satellites, they can far more easily become anti-satellite weapons. Put a can of spray paint on one (to blind earth or star sensors) and you can effectively destroy a satellite without creating a debris field.

    1. I think the point is that just because something can be used as a weapon, does not mean it should be treated exclusively as a weapon. In many poorer countries, civilian pickup trucks are regularly used as “technical’s” by adding a mounted machine gun or other weapon into the bed, this does not mean that the US should put the Ford F-150 on the ITAR munitions list.

  6. “Imagine the impact on US exports if Boeing commercial transports were moved to the munitions list”… why should they not be? If the same technology may be used to create a suborbital plane as an ICBM, then by that logic we should treat airliners as the kissing cousin to the cruise missile.

    Just because a technology is common does not mean that it is not able to be weaponized. Rather than assume a military use, the industry assumes that airliner and lear jet parts have a commercial application. The same assumption needs to be extended to suborbital and orbital space craft.

  7. Rand, Jon and all, thank you for spreading the word. If any of your readers would wish to comment to the State Department requesting politely (again, politely) that crewed (manned) suborbital and orbital vehicles be removed from the USML and placed on CCL, please see the instructions below …

    Before July 8th ….

    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 with the subject line ‘‘ITAR Amendment—USML Category XV and Defense Services.’’

    Internet: At, search for this notice by using this rule’s RIN (1400–AD33).”

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