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Chinese Nationals Not Beaming Up, Anytime Soon

The U.S. government appears to have reached a few preliminary conclusions about what export control laws apply to the Virgin Galactic program, and likely much of the future civilian space services industry. And, not surprisingly, Chinese nationals need not apply for the $250,000 Virgin Galactic adventure … unless you’re creative enough to use immigration laws to get around the export control regime (more on immigration and export controls in a minute).

According to the NBC news story, “Would-be spacefliers with Chinese passports are being turned away due to U.S. export controls.” This makes sense. If you have any knowledge, even basic, of the history as well as the regulatory regime, that would be the correct decision.

However, what caught my attention was a statement released by Virgin Galactic about U.S. export controls:

“Virgin Galactic’s space system is controlled under the ITAR by the U.S. government. The U.S. government has determined that the spaceflight customer experience falls under EAR99, a distinct category under the jurisdiction of the Commerce Department.

There is a lot there to talk about in that quote, but it’s too technical (i.e., boring), so we’ll spare you those details. It was this quote, from a story linked to the NBC piece that really focuses on the crux of the real issue here:

“If Chinese passport holders have a US Green Card, then Virgin Galactic accepts their application. We [also] have passengers [who have] successfully applied with Hong Kong SAR passports.”

Again, there is a lot of law and regulation that makes this possible (again, boring). We’ll leave that for another day. I just want to draw your attention to an issue that has been around for sometime and that no one really wants to talk about because there is, in theory, a ton of money to be made (a very good thing). And, on the other, a lot of people in this town could care less about U.S. national security.

To the credit of some smart folks in the Obama Administration (and ideas started in Bush II), as well as career civil servants who have been working on this issue for decades, immigration and export controls were finally linked. Stay with me.

In February 2011, U.S. employers applying for various business visas were required to certify under penalty of perjury their compliance with the U.S. export control laws and regulations.  Employers today have to certify that they have:

  1. Reviewed the Export Administration Regulations (“EAR”) and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (“ITAR”) and
  2. Determined whether a license is or is not required before the foreign employee can have access to controlled products or technology.

It was long overdue and while the controls could (and should, yes) be stronger, it was better than what we were doing before: nothing.

The policy decisions that undergird export control laws toward China are designed to, hopefully, keep sensitive U.S. civilian and military technology from the hands of the Chinese government and Chinese companies. Why? Well, they are political, economic, and military adversaries. For starters. It’s complicated.

Not all Chinese people are spies, that is crazy talk (and, yes, there are blockheads in this town who take the view all Chinese nationals that enter the U.S. are spies). In fact, there are many U.S. citizens in jail for spying for the Chinese. However, the Chinese Communist Party is making a concerted effort to steal U.S. military and civilian technology. Countermeasures, as distasteful as it may sound or seem, are necessary.

China can’t be trusted when it comes to certain things; anything outer space is one of them.

There will never be an ironclad export control regime, not even for civilian space travel. Our system is only as strong as the links up and down the supply chain, as well as the systems in place by our allies. But it is good to see some impact at the very start of the process.

P.S., there is no place I’d rather be some day than on a Virgin Galactic ship.

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