Friday, May 22, 2009

Space pioneers battle for greater freedom

CIVILIAN space flight companies are this week pressing the US government to change strict arms-control rules that could cripple their nascent industry.

At issue are the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which are supposed to prevent technological secrets ending up in the hands of 21 proscribed nations, including China, Iran and North Korea. If a technology appears on a document called the US Munitions List, companies need a licence to export it or to reveal details to a foreign national. Even if granted, the licence often forces the firm to mount a security guard on the system while it is in another country.

The list contains very broad definitions of what should be kept secret, and even includes spacecraft hatches and windows. "That list is written for a cold war world," says Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace in Washington DC, which plans to fly crewed inflatable habitats in Earth orbit. "Any space technology, no matter how benign, such as a solar panel or the table you support a craft on in the workshop, is covered by it."

Gold speaks from experience. In 2006, Bigelow launched a model habitat called Genesis 1 on a Russian ballistic missile. ITAR requirements cost the firm $1 million, including $220,000 for two American guards to watch over a support stand no more advanced than a coffee table.

On 21 May, Gold will chair a meeting of the commercial space transportation advisory committee of the Federal Aviation Administration. Alongside specialists from fellow firms such as Virgin Galactic and Space X, he hopes to thrash out exactly what revisions the Munitions List needs. "There are limited government resources for monitoring sensitive technology exports in any case," says Gold. "This will allow the government to spend more time on the truly sensitive stuff, like the rocket technology."

Bigelow has already scored a success. The US Department of State has waived the need for the company's technology to have separate licences for every non-American passenger on its space habitat - a move expected to benefit other space firms.

"It makes sense," says Gold. "Passengers are not exposed to detailed technical data in a Bigelow hab or a Virgin Galactic spaceship. I fly frequently but I still can't build a Boeing 737."

"Imagine if the Star Trek crew had to operate under today's rules," he adds. "Kirk couldn't tell Chekhov to fire the phasers because he's Russian. Or tell Sulu to go to warp speed because he's Japanese. We need to get ITAR right so we can achieve the dream we all have."

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