Edit: I need to completely rewrite this question.

Is it possible (either theoretically possible, or realistically possible) for a suffciently well-funded USA-based organization to make a complete manned spacecraft (i.e. system able to carry a crew at least from the surface of the earth into LEO and back, including booster if it isn't an SSTO) that is, completely unencumbered by the famously wide-ranging and vaguely-defined ITAR regulations?

If it isn't possible to do this, can one still make a spacecraft system that's significantly less encumbered than current privately-developed rockets, and in what ways?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I want to post the one-line answer "We'll never know, because ITAR regulations are vaguely-defined." $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    May 1, 2020 at 4:20
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Can you source your claim that current rocket manufacturers are encumbered greatly by ITAR? Most of ITAR is about export restrictions, not R&D. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    May 1, 2020 at 12:51
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Also, IMO, the US government would rapidly stomp down anyone trying to build a rocket and sell it without their permission. A rocket that can put people into orbit is also an ICBM, no matter how simple it is. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    May 1, 2020 at 12:53
  • $\begingroup$ It would be bad form to rewrite it. You got two authoritative answers to it. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2020 at 1:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Organic Marble that makes sense. I'll later ask my actual question. I'm sorry. $\endgroup$
    – ikrase
    May 2, 2020 at 6:40

3 Answers 3



Here's what ITAR says about launch vehicles

Category IV - Launch Vehicles, Guided Missiles, Ballistic Missiles, Rockets, Torpedoes, Bombs, and Mines

  • (a) Rockets, space launch vehicles (SLVs), missiles, bombs, torpedoes, depth charges, mines, and grenades, as follows:

    1. Rockets, SLVs, and missiles capable of delivering at least a 500-kg payload to a range of at least 300 km (MT);

    2. Rockets, SLVs, and missiles capable of delivering less than a 500-kg payload to a range of at least 300 km (MT);

    3. Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS);

    4. Anti-tank missiles and rockets;

    5. Rockets, SLVs, and missiles not meeting the criteria of paragraphs (a)(1) through (a)(4) of this category;

Let's take Virgin Galactic and argue that they're staying under the 500kg(1100lbs) limit. They avoid (a)1-4 because (theoretically) they're not going to 300km. They could still be subject to (a)(5) (which is the "famously broad" part). There's also fun with Export Administration Regulations (EAR)

One way to think about the EAR is “everything else that is not controlled by the ITAR.” Just be careful! This is not a hard-and-fast rule, since there are some items that do not fall under either regulation’s control, and still other items that may be subject to other U.S. governmental agency controls.

Which is where we find Virgin Galactic

"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. Virgin Galactic adheres to both the spirit and the letter of U.S. export controls and has for now chosen not to accept deposits from countries subject to U.S. export and other regulatory restrictions," the statement read.

So no tickets for some foreign nationals (in this case the Chinese). Or exports abroad. And that's not even for a pure rocket either but a rocket plane. If you're sending stuff into LEO you're going to travel more than 300km easily, meaning you squarely fall into (a)(1) or (a)(2).


ITAR (and EAR) are read as broadly as possible and no company launching in the US (or near launching) has been fully exempted from the law.


Any rocket capable of putting a spacecraft in orbit is going to fall under Category IV, paragraph (a), subparagraph (1), (2), or (4). Under Note 3 to paragraph (a), it explicitly calls out model and high power rockets defined in NFPA Code 1122 "made of paper, wood, fiberglass, or plastic containing no substantial metal parts and designed to be flown with hobby rocket motors that are certified for consumer use" as not under ITAR. The note further specifies that these rockets "must not contain active controls".

Various subsystems for that rocket (engines, guidance, staging mechanisms, thrust structure, injectors, umbilical connectors, etc) are also individually controlled under other paragraphs in Category IV.

Spacecraft that are covered by ITAR are covered under Category XV. Whether the spacecraft is covered depends on what it does. Most of the entries fall under remote sensing of various flavors.

Of particular interest for human spacecraft though:

  • Paragraph (e)(10)(i) may cover a spacecraft that wants to rendezvous with another.

  • Paragraph (e)(11)(iv) covers higher power electric propulsion.

  • Paragraph (e)(12) covers pretty much any thrusters that would be useful for human spacecraft. (150 lbf thrust, or total impulse greater than 841,000 Newton-seconds)

  • Paragraph (e)(13) covers the use of CMGs for attitude control.

  • Paragraph (e)(16) covers high capability star trackers

  • Paragraph (e)(19) covers reentry heat shields.


Adjunct answer.

While the interstellar technologies website used to say:

All major components are designed in house and manufactured locally. The vehicle is ITAR free. Launch pad is located near our factory allowing for short lead time and launch costs under $5M USD.

according to my answer and screenshots therein, it doesn't seem to say that any more.

However the web site does still say:

The equipment used for rocket making is not a special machine specialized for making high-performance parts, but a processing equipment that can be found in any town factory.

Using a component that is easy for everyone to make, rather than a component made by a special person using a special machine, will lead to a low-cost rocket.

If anyone has further information about Interstellar Technology's website or technology or can read Japanese, please feel free to edit this answer directly or comment.


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