America’s space efforts are being hampered by politics
SPACE technology has been a sinew of military power ever since the Soviet Union shocked America into the space race when it launched Sputnik 1 into orbit 51 years ago. The rivalry is about more than bragging rights. The rockets that carry space-bound payloads are close relatives of the intercontinental missiles that carry enemy-bound warheads. And satellites furnish information and communications to soldier and civilian alike. So it is only natural for America, now the leader in space, to try to protect its dominance and prevent weapons proliferating by controlling the export of its space technology.
Yet rarely has such a reasonable aim been so self-defeating. The system of export controls, known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), is managed with almost comic zeal by the State Department. Anything that is part of a satellite assembly needs vetting—even if it is as common as a lithium-ion battery, as insignificant as a screw or as innocuous as a stand for a satellite . The cost, delays and inconvenience of dealing with the American space industry are exasperating enough to send its foreign partners into orbit.
Which is exactly where they have been going—on their own. The American space industry’s share of commercial-satellite manufacturing has fallen from over 80% before 1999 to 50% now. The French are going great guns with an “ITAR-free” design. The Canadians, who once looked to their allies across the border for their satellites, have found that they can buy everything they need elsewhere.
You might argue that keeping American technology out of foreign satellites was always the intention of the legislation, even if that harmed American firms. Except that America’s export policy is harming both its industry and its security at the same time. Much of the space technology that Europeans and others are now making poses no strategic threat. It is just lost American business. Foreign firms may not have bothered to develop their own technology if the American sort had been available. And starved of revenues, the Pentagon fears, America’s space industry is now so vulnerable in places that national security is threatened—which is precisely the outcome the legislation sought to avoid.
This week Barack Obama promised that, if elected, he would direct a review of ITAR with a special focus on space hardware. Outdated restrictions, said his space-policy document, have cost American satellite and space-hardware makers billions of dollars in lost business. If the space-export regime is typical, then similar mistakes are being made in other areas of defence technology, with similarly harmful consequences.
It makes sense for America to use trade restrictions to hamper foreign efforts in space. But the country would be safer if parts of the industry were more profitable—otherwise firms are unlikely to innovate and may even go out of business. ITAR needs reworking so that it concentrates on a few vital technologies that must not get into enemy hands, leaving the many commonplace technologies to commerce. That is hard, admittedly, because space technology is complex and it is constantly evolving. Moreover, bureaucrats would be expected to make judgments in favour of trade—in full knowledge that these could leave them open to the charge of allowing “sensitive technology” to leak to the enemy. They will therefore need support from politicians.
People who work in the space business like to keep the motto per aspera ad astra close to their hearts. It means “through hardship to the stars”. It was never intended to be a bureaucrats’ charter.