NASA has taken down the NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS), a publically-available resource for technical data written by the space organisation, following the FBI's arrest of a Chinese national accused of lying to investigators.
Representative Frank Wolf, the chairman of the House of Representatives subcommittee controlling both NASA and the FBI's budget, requested that NASA remove technical information from public view pending a review for sensitive information.
In an 18 March press conference, Representative Frank Wolf cited the 16 March arrest of Bo Jiang, a Chinese research scientist employed at NASA's Langley research center, as reason enough for a broad review of public data. Bo was boarding a flight to China, and was arrested for lying to federal agents about his possession of a laptop, external hard drive and memory stick.
Any foreign objects in there?
Suspicion fell on Bo on 7 March, when Wolf announced at a press conference that concerned NASA employees informed him of lapses in security regarding Bo, a scientist studying imagery enhancements for contractor the National Institute of Aerospace.
At the press conference, Wolf called on NASA to take down technical information so it could be reviewed for potential violations of export control laws, which tightly regulate spacecraft and satellite components. Wolf also called for "an immediate review" of foreign nationals with NASA credentials, and an audit of NASA contractors that employ foreign nationals on NASA property.
The occurrences bring light to a particularly thorny set of issues within the space community: export controls, intellectual property and the role of China.
In the 1990s, two American-built satellites flying atop Chinese rockets were destroyed during launch. During the subsequent fault reviews it became evident that the Chinese government was using the investigation to gather information on US satellite technology and manufacturing. Concern arose that China, already infamous for lax intellectual property enforcement in other realms, could seek to copy proprietary and even secret US technologies.
The result was a modification of the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) law, placing satellites, spacecraft and related components solidly on the United States Munitions List (USML) and removing authority to reclassify from the president. Placement on the USML means long and arduous reviews by the government to even discuss relevant plans with foreign nationals.
The change was a disaster for the US space manufacturing industry. The space industry is both highly competitive and highly international, and the new demands added costs and complications that many foreign companies simply declined to bear. The US share of satellite manufacturing plunged from 100% of worldwide market share in the 1970s to around 16% today. Export controls do not explain all of that decline, but they have certainly been a major factor. Foreign manufacturers began to advertise satellites as "ITAR-free" - that is, free of US-built components.
US businessmen returned from abroad with horror stories about requiring armed guards for simple structural components and restrictions on discussing certain kinds of tape. To cite one of the more outrageous examples:
"We had what was called the Genesis stand, and the purpose of this hunk of metal was to keep Genesis [a Bigelow spacecraft] from being on the ground. It was round, it had four legs, if you flipped it upside down it was indistinguishable from a coffee table," says Mike Gold, a lawyer for Bigelow Aerospace. "As a legal requirement we had two guards to watch the coffee table at all times, and monitors to watch the guards."
"I can only imagine the consequences if this technology were to leak to the Chinese or Iranians. They could gain technology to serve coffee," he adds. Gold eventually obtained a waiver for that particular structure on his second attempt.
Finally, language in the 2013 Department of Defense funding reauthorisation gave authority to remove satellites back to the president, who has ordered a systematic review of export policies with an eye to removing burdensome restrictions. There is one clearly-stated exception in the language - China.
China maintains a very active and ambitious spaceflight programme, and there is no doubt the government would love to get its hands on more advanced US technology. The nation is charged with state-sponsored computer hacking on a massive scale against targets that include NASA facilities. SpaceX, citing competition from national governments, does not file patents for its impressive collection of intellectual property; though the governments are unnamed, it seems clear from the context that China leads the pack. Regardless, the Chinese government is surely able to both launch rockets and serve coffee.
Though Wolf and others are surely correct about fearing Chinese intellectual property theft, there are open questions to be answered regarding the level of information disclosure that should be acceptable. Vetting NTRS-accessible documents carefully under the still-in-place coffee table-restricting rules will undoubtedly find some export control violations - NASA is not known for its fanatical secrecy - but how useful the information may be to China and others in copying US designs remains to be seen.
Raising the issue of China's growing power causes some discomfort in Washington, and while some may condemn it, few deny the need to co-operate and co-ordinate in some respects. If the US and China cannot sit down for coffee together, space policies of the two nations will increasingly diverge, potentially leading to larger problems down the road.