Monday, February 26, 2018

The Jockeying Begins for ITAR Access to the US Space Market

          By Brian Orlotti

Robert Bigelow, founder of Las Vegas, NV based Bigelow Aerospace, has announced the formation of Bigelow Space Operations (BSO), a new company that will oversee the marketing of Earth-orbiting space stations to both US and international clients. With the recent success of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, other US space firms are also now courting foreign customers.

A significant hurdle for US space firms accessing international markets remains however, in the form of domestic compliance with US arms-control regulations under US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

As outlined in the February 23rd, 2018 Popular Mechanics post, "America's Starmen Are Selling Space, But Who’s Buying?," US based commercial space companies have long expressed a desire to sell their wares to countries around the world, helping non-spacefaring nations to establish their own space programs.

Hawthorne, CA based SpaceX already launches payloads for many international clients aboard its Falcon rockets, and is willing to send customers anywhere they wish to go in the solar system. Bigelow Aerospace has long marketed its inflatable space stations for research, industrial and tourist activity in Earth orbit.

Even "oldspace" firms have stepped up, with  Chicago, Illinois based Boeing, the makers of the Starliner crewed space capsule, making mention of their intention to sell spaceflight services to foreign customers as outlined in the January 14th, 2018 Fortune post, "SpaceX and Boeing Slated for Crewed Space Missions By Year's End."

With economical heavy-lift launch capability now achieved, BSO (and doubtless other firms as well) are now conducting market studies to seek out potential customers.

ITAR is a US regulatory framework designed to restrict the export of military-related technologies (such as space rockets) to foreign nations. ITAR severely restricts the flow of space technology and expertise even to longtime US allies such as Canada and the EU. Such restrictions may hamper US space firms’ efforts to do business abroad as well as foreign space firms’ ability to setup shop in the US.

Recent signs from the US government, however, indicate a willingness to ease these restrictions.

At a meeting of the newly-reformed US National Space Council last week, it was announced that US export controls will be reviewed with the stated goal of reducing barriers to commercial space activity. The review is scheduled to be complete by Jan 1st, 2019.

Perhaps by no coincidence, this will be at the same time that SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft are due to begin launching human crews to the International Space Station (ISS).

The first obvious market for commercial space transport will be delivering astronauts and cargo (from both the US and ISS partner nations), to the ISS. Beyond that, potential customers include Middle Eastern nations such as the UAE, which has already stated its intent to build a space program with the aid of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, or perhaps African nations.

Looking further ahead, Bigelow Aerospace’s projected earth-orbit space stations could provide destinations for crewed commercial spacecraft. SpaceX’s and Kent, WA based Blue Origin’s planned moon bases as well as SpaceX’s Mars settlement could provide other future markets.     

US space firms will hardly have the field to themselves. China has announced that its modular space station set to launch in 2019 will be open to other nations, in contrast to the US’ exclusion of China from the ISS.

As the space frontier finally opens, the jockeying for position has already begun.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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