US State Department proposes to limit commercial spaceflight

If you're hoping that a commercial spaceflight will take you from New York to Beijing in a fraction of today's travel time, I wouldn't get your hopes up.  New regulations just proposed by the US State Department would cripple visions of Concorde-like transoceanic flights.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is set to become the world's first commercial spacecraft, but it may be stuck in the United States.  (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

In a new proposal, the State Department suggests that manned commercial spacecraft be placed on the US Department of Defense's Munitions List.  The US Munitions List is designed to protect technologies considered vital to America's national defense.  Physical items cannot be transported off of American soil without explicit permission and technical ideas cannot be communicated to non-citizens.  While most of the twenty categories of restricted material relate to military technology (firearms, combat aircraft, explosives, etc), both rocket technology and spacecraft are currently included.

If the spacecraft category were to be expanded to include private crafts, it would virtually eliminate space travel as a practical transportation method.  In such a case, all vehicles would have to both take off and land on US soil - not so convenient for overseas travel!   Since basically all commercial spaceflight efforts are based in the US, such a rule would affect the entire industry.  While such fears might seem overblown today, we have a chilling example to examine.  In 1999, commercial satellites were placed on the Munitions List.  At the time, the US manufactured nearly two-thirds of the world's satellites. A decade later, that number had dropped to less than a third.  Billions of dollars and tens of thousands of high-skill jobs were lost.

Fortunately, the State Department is also recommending that commercial satellites be moved from the Munitions List to the less-restrictive Department of Commerce Commercial Control List,  While this is a great step forward, it doesn't offset the blow to commercial spacecraft.

These rules aren't law yet, so there is still room for changes to be made.  Hopefully the State Department will decide that, just like airplanes a century ago, commercial spaceflight has more good to offer the world than harm towards America.

Source: XCOR