After years of waiting, university space-science researchers hoping for promised reforms to US export controls got a bit of good news: a report by the defence and state departments recommends that many space systems be moved to the commerce department.
The report, released on 18 April, also says that the US Congress should ease control on some commercial satellites while also increasing restrictions on exports to China and Iran. Another recommendation would allow the president the discretion to determine which satellites should be classified as munitions.
A White House fact sheet describes the findings as “part of the Administration’s broader review of US space policy and of the nation’s export control system.”
Although Congress will have to approve any legislative changes, the report is considered a crucial step towards reversing rules that many in industry and academia believe have placed a stranglehold on US satellite research and manufacturing for more than a decade.
“First of all, I think it’s a good day,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, a professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who has followed the export issues closely. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Congress shifted authority over dual-use satellites from the commerce department to the state department in 1998. Tighter rules were put in place, in part to address concerns over the transfer of strategically important technologies to China after the failed launch of Intelsat 708, a US-built satellite, atop a Chinese Long March rocket (pictured) in 1996.
Although purely basic scientific research is, in theory, exempt from the state department’s export controls, university professors and researchers have feared that teaching applied research, such as how to protect satellites from the effects of radiation, could slip over into controlled areas. The rules have also proved problematic for universities working on satellites that fall under the state department’s purview; both the universities and the professors could face sanctions if they allowed foreign graduate students access to the hardware or the technical information involved in the space systems.
Even though the report, as expected, recommends leaving some satellites on the state department’s munitions list — such as military and intelligence satellites, and communications satellites with state-of-the-art capabilities — Zurbuchen says that knowing which satellites are subject to stricter controls “makes it easier for us to stay away from those.”
Government officials, likewise, are hailing the report as a key step towards legislative reform. “We believe that, if Congress is willing, the approach laid out in this report…can strengthen our national security by energizing the industrial base that is so important to us and by allowing our industry to compete on the global market for satellites,” said Gregory L. Schulte, deputy assistant secretary defence for space policy, who announced the report at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Of course, “if Congress is willing” is the key phrase. But although it’s unclear exactly what legislative changes will follow — or when — the report is regarded by many as a sign of progress. “Overall I’m pretty optimistic,” Zurbuchen says.