ASA (Aerospace States Association) Hearing

I provided this statement last week on Capitol Hill as part of a hearing organized by the Aerospace States Association. It addresses two issues crucial to the future of education and entreprenership related to teaching at Universities, such as the University of Michigan.

The following is a reproduction of the testimony provided:

I appreciate the opportunity of being asked to participate in this hearing and provide a perspective, as a representative of the university community. I am a professor of space science and aerospace engineering and director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan. I also serve as vice chair of the Council of Institutions of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), a consortium of 102 major research universities founded 40 years ago by the National Academy of Sciences at the request of NASA.

I want to call attention to two pressing issues that adversely impact our nation’s ability to remain a leader in space. First, is a continuing decline in opportunities at our nation’s research universities for the next-generation of scientists and engineers to gain the hands-on training they will need to succeed in aerospace fields. Our space workforce is the best in the world, largely because it is led by individuals who benefited from hands-on training with actual space projects during their university years. Decades ago were exciting years for a young person to enter space-related work. There were frequent launches of small missions, many of which were led by university-based teams. Students got plenty of hands-on experience, and learned first hand the difficulties of designing and constructing an experiment or engineering system that would operate reliably in space. Many students also learned from designing and building experiments for smaller, suborbital flights on rockets or balloons, or by observing with an airborne telescope.

The Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy (Moon, Mars and Beyond Commission) found in 2004 that, “At present, there are insufficient methods for students to acquire hands-on experience in the scientific and technical disciplines necessary for space commerce and exploration.” Indeed, according to an analysis undertaken by USRA, the number of flight opportunities through which university students can build hardware and analyze related space data has declined steadily over the last two decades. Since 1970, suborbital experimental launches decreased eighty percent—from 270 launches per year to just 50 planned launches this year.

This problem impacts all sectors of space enterprise, large or small, civilian or military, government or commercial. Concerns are growing about our ability to design and deploy the space systems of the future for meeting needs ranging from space exploration to global climate prediction, from commercial space ventures to national security.

To address U.S. needs, we must increase our investment in proven research programs, such as sounding rocket launches, aircraft-based research, and high-altitude balloon campaigns, all of which provide opportunities for hands-on flight experience at a relatively low cost of failure. The average research payload for sounding rocket projects range from $200,000 to $2.5 million. The average cost of recent sounding rocket payloads was just over $1 million. Balloon payloads range in cost from just $50,000 to $1 million. Launch, labor and infrastructure costs involved with each payload launch adds additional costs that average $2 million.

The National Research Council Committee on Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration found in 2006 that, “NASA should expand and enhance agency-wide training and mentorship programs, including opportunities for developing hands-on experience, for its most vital required skill sets, such as systems engineering.”

The member universities of USRA unanimously adopted a resolution at their annual meeting urging that at least 1% of NASA’s total budget be devoted to funding competitive opportunities for university-led hands-on training provided by university missions on sounding rockets, high altitude balloons, remotely piloted vehicles, emerging commercial suborbital flights, and university class space flight missions.

As President Dan Mote of the University of Maryland, a member of the NRC Gathering Storm Committee, said at USRA’s annual meeting in March of last year, “The USRA can speak to what is needed to attract the best and brightest young space scientists and engineers, such as the hands-on training provided by sounding rockets, balloons, and other small missions. These space professionals are going to be an ever more crucial component of the U.S. workforce, security and prosperity going forward.”

But, the educational objectives addressing this crucial national need are adversely affected by the second issue this hearing is centered on. Hands-on projects that go to space are falling under a set of regulations that make them almost impossible to work on at universities across the country, such as the University of Michigan.

In fact, the second issue to which I want to call attention to is the need to balance the adverse impact of ITAR on U.S. space-related scientific research with the needs of U.S. national security. ITAR has had a chilling effect on basic space research carried out at U.S. universities. Current implementation makes university-built space hardware and flight software subject to the full force of ITAR export control restrictions.

The recent National Research Council report, Space Science and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, calls attention to how the implementation of ITAR with respect to scientific satellites was dramatically altered by the Congress in 1999 by the report of the Cox Committee.

One of the many consequences of the Cox Committee Report was Congress’s mandate that jurisdiction over export and licensing of satellites and related equipment and services, irrespective of military utility, be transferred from the Department of Commerce to the State Department and that such equipment and services be covered as defense articles under ITAR. Scientific satellites were explicitly included despite their use for decades in peaceful internationally conducted cooperative scientific research. It is widely recognized that the shift in regulatory regime from EAR [Export Administration Regulations] to ITAR has had major deleterious effects on international scientific research activities that depend on satellites, space hardware, and other items now covered under ITAR.

For me, this shift occurred right in the middle of the FIPS project – a small plasma sensor bound to planet Mercury. From one day to the other, I was no longer allowed to look at the technical information I generated. The team was stalling, and the University of Michigan did not know how to address this issue. I was lucky – only two months later did this get resolved because I got my greencard. But, that was good luck! I always wonder whether there we would know about Mercury’s atmosphere today if my greencard did not show up in time – these first measurements were done by FIPS in 2008!

In space research, university scientists usually work with teams of colleagues who may come from other U.S. or foreign universities, federal laboratories, and U.S. industrial partners. The constraints imposed by ITAR compliance are obstacles to such collaboration. Universities are finding themselves in the position of weighing the costs and risks of participating in our nation’s space program versus opting out and thereby depriving their faculties and students of the opportunity to be engaged in space science and technology development.

Ambiguities about how ITAR review and licensing requirements are to be applied and how broad the application should be have created significant confusion on campuses throughout the U.S. For example, uncertainties include a lack of clarity about how to interpret the fundamental research exclusion and about what material can be used in an engineering course curriculum in which non-U.S. students are enrolled. Some professors are being forced to choose between excluding non-U.S. students from their courses and projects or “dumbing down” the curriculum so that the risk of being accused of transferring sensitive technological information is eliminated. Furthermore, ITAR compliance and the burdens that accompany the ITAR approval process also are leading some very able young faculty members to avoid fields such as space research, where the uncertainties and burdens seem most acute.

The financial cost of ITAR compliance at universities is also significant and includes training for contract administrators and faculty about ITAR requirements, documenting university attempts to work within the limits afforded under the fundamental research exclusion, applying for rulings and/or approvals from the Department of State for activities that may be controlled by ITAR, and the costs resulting from delays in research projects while pursing ITAR approvals.

For economic, scientific, and foreign policy reasons, it is essential that barriers to international collaborations by U.S. universities be reduced. USRA recommends that the following measures be undertaken by the Congress and the Administration:

1. Modify the basic research exclusion so that it extends to U.S. aerospace firms, Federal laboratories, and non-profit organizations when they are interacting with universities in pursuit of fundamental space research. The current implementation of the exclusion is ineffective, because space projects almost always entail collaborations between universities and other partners. The extension of the fundamental research exclusion will allow industry and national laboratories to work with universities for the purposes of fundamental research.

2. Conduct a top-to-bottom review and scrubbing of the items on the U.S. Munitions List (USML) and the Commerce Control List (CCL). The National Security Council should lead an interagency review with support from the Office of Science and Technology Policy to rationalize the lists. The treatment of space articles in the current list is excessively comprehensive. The list has been described as covering “everything that flies” and includes articles that are of no military significance or that can be readily purchased in the open market in the U.S. and abroad.

3. Extension to selected agencies, such as NASA, authority to issue a well-circumscribed exemption similar to the Foreign Military Sales exemption accorded the Department of Defense. For activities conducted for the Department of Defense, there is a foreign military-sales exemption whereby commercial exports are exempt from the licensing requirements of ITAR, if they are in furtherance of a program between a U.S. government agency and a foreign government. A similar exemption should be granted to NASA so that exports by U.S. entities that are in support of an international collaborative space project that is being conducted under a formal government-to-government agreement can be excluded from ITAR licensing requirements.

The product of these measures will be regulations that restore the original intent of export control legislation and balance the vital needs of U.S. national security with the crucial role of university research.

I want to thank the Aerospace States Association for inviting me to participate here today and for organizing this important hearing.

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