The orbiting of theprivately-bankrolled Genesis-1 expandable spacecraft by Bigelow Aerospace is astep forward in the company's vision to provide a low-cost, low Earth orbithuman-rated space complex that is accessible to the commercial sector.
The general concept for"inflatable" space habitats was initially developed by NASA for usein a proposed mission to Mars, hence the name, "Transit Habitat" or"TransHab" as it was commonly referred to. Thatwork was curtailed in 2000, falling victim to NASA budget cuts.
Since that time, BigelowAerospace took the basic concept, redefined it, moved the technologygenerations ahead and in many different directions, and ultimately brought theidea to fruition in the form of the Genesis-1 Pathfinder vessel.
Launchedearlier this month, the Bigelow Aerospace Genesis-1 has taken the deflated NASAidea and puffed new life into the use of what Bigelow Aerospace refers to as'expandable' space-based structures--spending some $75 million in the process,so far.
Still, obtaining U.S. permission to shoot Genesis-1into orbit atop the Dneprbooster--a converted Cold War, silo-launched SS-18 intercontinentalballistic missile from Russia--was no trouble-free task.
Second only to gravity
The U.S. Department ofState is responsible for the control of the permanent and temporary export andtemporary import of defense articles and services. Under what's called theInternational Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR),the job is clear-cut: Control of arms sales to foreign parties is an integralpart of the U.S. ability to safeguard nationalsecurity and further foreign policy objectives.
"One of the mostdifficult aspects of conducting a mission like Genesis-1 is surviving all ofthe red-tape involved in export control. Without working with DefenseTechnology Security Administration (DTSA) and Defense Trade Control (DTC)officials, I don't know if we would have made it," said Mike Gold,Corporate Counsel for Bigelow Aerospace in Washington, D.C.
Gold confirmed that therewas a "long document trail" before Bigelow Aerospace workers at thelaunch site in Russia opened the sea container thatcontained Genesis-1 in preparation for its July 12 blastoff.
"Second only togravity, the force that had the greatest potential to keep Genesis-1 on theground was the ITAR," Gold explained to SPACE.com. "I thinkthere is a consensus in the industry that some reforms in this arena arewarranted and potentially overdue."
Red Tape and Reform
"It was extremelydifficult for us. The amount of red tape and regulations are enormous,"said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace at a pressbriefing last week at the company's central location in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In Bigelow's view, the ITARseems designed to discourage any kind of interaction between U.S. companies on a space effort withother countries. His advice is to return such decision-making to the Departmentof Commerce.
For his part, Gold also hadsome near-term solutions, while saluting how DTSA, in particular, handled theGenesis-1 launch. Echoing his employer's sentiments in regard to the Departmentof Commerce, he also had some additional near-term suggestions.
"We're big supportersof export control. Ballistic and militarily sensitive technologies shouldunquestionably be protected," Gold said. "However, when it comes toprojects that don't involve any such information or hardware, and like Genesis,are composed virtually completely of commercially available technology, adifferent regime is required."
Gold said that withinexisting law, licensing officers should be encouraged to look hard atapplications, and, if they do not involve militarily sensitive hardware, actaccordingly.
"I've worked with DTSAin particular for two years now, and there are some very smart people there...itwould be beneficial if the system encouraged them to make more commonsensejudgments in regard to monitoring and other requirements, particularly when dealingwith off-the-shelf technologies," Gold explained.
In Gold's view, there needsto be more discretion built into the system, a bifurcated process, so thatcommercially available technology is not treated in the same way as militarilysensitive hardware.
"The key is to takethe time to distinguish one from the other. That way, DTSA and DTC can focusmore of their scarce resources on technologies that legitimately needwatching."
Very thin line
There is ongoing debateregarding ITAR and whether this regulatory muscle impedes U.S. trade, anability to compete in the global marketplace and hinders science exchange--aclaim voiced by many U.S. industries and academia.
From their perspective, theDepartment of State contends ITAR is a must-have security benefit with thevarious rules and regulations imposed having limited impact.
"There is a legitimatenational security concern on proliferation of missile technology and launchtechnology, and all the know-how that goes around that," explained Robert Brumley, former chairman of Reagan's commercial spaceworking group. He is also former general counsel for the U.S. Department ofCommerce.
"You only have to lookas far as North Korea, Iran and China to really see sort of the cause andeffect. It has always been a concern...and it's a very thin line," Brumley told SPACE.com. "There is a line youcannot cross by essentially selling the rope to our enemies and they will comeover here and hang us with it."
There's a good reason forboth sides of the line, Brumley said. "There isa process in place, a bureaucratic process, but it's a process," headvised, and Bigelow proved it can be done.
"That's just the wayit's going to have to be until we're in a safer world," Brumley said. "The consequences of not having aprocess are too extreme to imagine."
Bigelow's boost on aRussian ICBM for launch was done as a cost-saving and needed measure.
An early rocket of choiceby Bigelow Aerospace for tossing its test modules into space was the Falcon 5,offered by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX),based in El Segundo, California. But the firm's Falcon 1 boosterhas been trouble-plagued, failing last March in its maiden flight.
Elon Musk, SpaceXchairman and chief executive officer said his firm's booster is slated to orbitone of Bigelow's larger, still under design prototype modules in late 2008 on aFalcon 9.
The Genesis-1 design thatwent on the ISC Kosmotras Dnepr was too large for aFalcon 1, but too small for a Falcon 5 or Falcon 9, Musk explained to SPACE.com.
Bigelow's blastoff courtesyof the Dnepr also underscored the impediments for launching within the United States, Brumleyobserved. "We still have third-party liability insurance issues. We stillhave access to launch facility problems. We still have certified vehicleissues," he noted.
U.S. launch firms do not crank out production modelboosters like the Russians do, Brumley added. Rather,American providers build a "build-to-suit" launch vehicle, he said.
"The way to avoid theITAR problem is to remove impediments in the United States to the kind of launch services andpayload integration that is now being done offshore," Brumleyobserved. "That's the better solution."
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Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.