Rules governing rockets and space launch

Have you ever wondered what the rules are when it comes to rocket launches? A rocket is basically a bomb with a hole poked in one end, and they sometimes fail catastrophically. Are there any laws governing this activity, or is it a total free for all? Aside from exploding on the pad, what if your rocket (or parts of it) land on someone else’s private property or injured someone? Do you need some sort of clearance from the government to launch a rocket?

Volumes of books could be written with answers to these questions, but I will just highlight a couple of important federal laws and regulations that govern large commercial rockets and space launch activity in the United States. My background is in law, so it’s only natural for me to pay extra attention to the laws and regulations for space flight.

rocket launching into the sky, with large smoke cloud below
rocket lab launch. image credit: new york times

International Traffic in Arms Regulations

One fundamental set of requirements is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (“ITAR”). These regulations restrict the export of defense or military related technologies, as a part of US national security. Here’s a quick rundown:

What type of technologies are covered under ITAR? Defense-related articles and services, which are on the United States Munitions List (“USML”). This is basically a list of services or technologies that have been designated as defense or space related by the US government.

What’s a defense-related “article”? An article is basically either a physical item or technical data.

What does it mean if a technology is on the USML and subject to ITAR? In order to export one of these technologies (i.e., to give it to a non-US person), you would have to get an export license from the US State Department. In other words, in general, these technologies can only be shared with another US person, unless you get special approval from the State Department.

What are the categories in the United States Munitions List?

  1. Firearms, Close Assault Weapons and Combat Shotguns
  2. Guns and Armament
  3. Ammunition/Ordnance
  4. Launch Vehicles, Guided Missiles, Ballistic Missiles, Rockets, Torpedoes, Bombs, and Mines
  5. Explosives and Energetic Materials, Propellants, Incendiary Agents, and Their Constituents
  6. Surface Vessels of War and Special Naval Equipment
  7. Ground Vehicles
  8. Aircraft and Related Articles
  9. Military Training Equipment and Training
  10. Personal Protective Equipment
  11. Military Electronics
  12. Fire Control, Range Finder, Optical and Guidance and Control Equipment, Night vision goggles
  13. Materials and Miscellaneous Articles
  14. Toxicological Agents, Including Chemical Agents, Biological Agents, and Associated Equipment
  15. Spacecraft and Related Articles
  16. Nuclear Weapons Related Articles
  17. Classified Articles, Technical Data, and Defense Services Not Otherwise Enumerated
  18. Directed Energy Weapons
  19. Gas Turbine Engines and Associated Equipment
  20. Submersible Vessels and Related Articles
  21. Articles, Technical Data, and Defense Services Not Otherwise Enumerated

Who legally enforces ITAR? The US Department of State Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (“DDTC”) interprets and enforces ITAR.

Who physically enforces ITAR? The US Department of Homeland Security enforces ITAR. Specifically, Special Agents under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), along with US Customs and Border Protection Officers physically inspect imports and exports at US border crossings and international airports.

Registration. All manufacturers (as well as exporters and brokers) of defense articles are required to register with the State Department.

Satellites and their components. Prior to 1992, satellites components were considered munitions, subject to ITAR and enforcement by the State Department. However, during the mid-1990s, the US Commerce Department took on responsibility for regulating communications satellites, under the Export Administration Regulations (“EAR”).

Arms Export Control Act

Another major related law is the Arms Export Control Act (“AECA”). This law gives the US President the authority to control imports and exports of defense articles. It requires foreign governments receiving any weapons from the US to use them only in self-defense. The law also places certain restrictions on US arms traders and manufacturers. If they sell sensitive technologies to “trusted” parties, thorough documentation is required, and they are completely prohibited from selling those technologies to certain other parties.

Export Administration Regulations

One other significant set of requirements governing rocket launches and space activity is the Export Administration Regulations (“EAR”). These regulations govern whether something may be exported from the US, and whether it may be transferred from one person to another in a foreign country. The US Commerce Department administers these regulations.

Similar to the US Munitions List under ITAR, the EAR has its own Commerce Control List (CCL). This is a list of items that may have military use and not just commercial use. The vast majority of what’s covered under the EAR are just commercial exports and are not on the CCL.

What counts as an “export”? An export could be any of the following:

1.An actual shipment of an item outside the US;

2. Releasing or transferring technology (including source code) to a foreign person within the US;

3. Transferring registration, control, or ownership of spacecraft, in certain circumstances.

General Prohibitions. The EAR contains a list of 10 General Prohibitions. I won’t list them all in excruciating detail here, but basically there are certain things that are prohibited when it comes to exports, and they’re all more or less common sense. Unless you have a license or an exception applies, you cannot export anything to certain countries (e.g. North Korea, Iran, Syria, etc.), or to an end-user (or end-use) that is specifically prohibited. You can’t export things that are on the CCL (i.e., that have potential military use). You cannot perform certain activities that are related to nuclear explosives, missiles, chemical weapons, or biological weapons. You also cannot export things that even pass through a list of certain countries (e.g. North Korea again, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and about a dozen others) without a license. Finally – you cannot violate the terms or conditions of a license, license exception, or any order issued under the EAR, and you also cannot export, transfer, forward, or do anything else with an item subject to the EAR with the knowledge that a violation of the EAR would occur.

Summary

These are just a few of the laws or regulations that govern the aerospace industry and space activities, but they are three of the biggest and most important to know about.

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