Thursday, October 27, 2005

Real World Politics And Off World Policy.

Space entrepreneurs are always complaining about government roadblocks to space exploration. The most vociferous complaints are about the restrictions imposed on private space companies by ITAR, the international arms control regulations of the federal government.

ITAR is especially hard on private space companies because its definition of arms includes just about every technology related to space flight and its definition of arms trafficking includes talking about arms technology with foreigners. Dennis Wingo, of the company Orbital Recovery, told stories at the Space Frontier Foundation's annual conference last weekend about the burdens of working under ITAR. He described how ITAR makes it difficult for him to communicate with his company's Western European partners about problems with technologies they are developing together.

Wingo's company was required to get an ITAR license for each European partner. Despite having these licenses he described how at meetings with the Europeans discussing a flight performance shortfall, which he knew how to fix, ITAR barred him from telling his own partners the solution. The European engineers had to go out and figure it out themselves. And these are American allies Wingo is partnered with.

But it's not just the private sector that has to deal with international politics. NASA was facing the prospect of not being able to fly to the International Space Station in Russian Soyuz spacecraft because of the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA). That act prohibited NASA from purchasing Russian hardware linked to the construction and use of the ISS. Congress imposed the ban because Russia sold nuclear and missile technologies to Iran. That ban has now been lifted. (See stories here and here.)

Most comments about ITAR and INA at space conferences such as the Space Frontier Foundation's are entirely self-centered. They tend to be intense complaints about how the laws make it very difficult for United States companies to do commercial space flight. The complaints are understandable since in plain political terms, the space conferences are meetings for special interest groups trying to make money in space or steer taxpayer dollars to space. Consequently the national security reasons behind laws like ITAR and the INA tend to be ignored. So it was refreshing to hear two speakers on the ITAR panel at last weekend's conference talk about the law in national security terms.

Berin Szoka, an energetic young lawyer who is starting up a new D.C. think tank, the Institute for Space Law and Policy, said that space advocates lobbying Congress against ITAR have to take national security into account. Responding to this challenge, Randall Clague, an XCOR employee, argued that ITAR is hurting America's defense industry. He claimed that ITAR is putting the United States at risk of having a second-best defense. The most dramatic example he cited was the recent federal government decision to use a foreign company to replace the President's helicopter. Clague did not provide details on how ITAR contributed to that decision or how it hurts American defense generally. In time perhaps he will, and he'd better because Szoka is right that the argument has to be framed in those terms. Here's why.

Lifting the INA ban on use of Russian hardware will help NASA get through the next seven years and is good for the United States space program. Whether it will benefit United States national security remains to be seen. Russia remains friendly with the theocrats who rule Iran and is supportive of the mullahs' nuclear program.

At the same time the INA ban was being lifted, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad was making a speech that is a reminder why the ban was imposed in the first place.
"'As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map,' Mr Ahmadi-Nejad said, citing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic revolution.

The president told an audience of students there was 'no doubt the new wave [of attacks] in Palestine will soon wipe off this disgraceful blot from the face of the Islamic world.'

'Anybody who recognises Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury,' he said, in remarks aimed at Arab states."
(See story here.)

Imagine the world if this guy gets his hands on nuclear weapons. We just might need a robust space program to transport humanity away from a ruined and radioactive Earth.


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