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Friday April 02, 1999

Wings clipped on students' satellites
State Department sees projects as munitions.

By Martha Mendoza

     PALO ALTO (AP) - A Stanford grad student Mike Swartwout taps a coded message to his satellite from his tiny ground station on the fourth floor of a Stanford University building.
     If it weren't for the Clinton administration's new national security restrictions, his class project would be orbiting over the Arctic Ocean right now. Instead, the 2-foot-wide hexagonal satellite responds to his message from its perch in a dust-free room 80 feet below him. Like others built by top engineering students around the country, it's grounded.
     It's a wonderfully simple problem. They can't get an affordable launch in the United States. They have a free launch offered in another country. But political problems are making it impossible to ship it out," said Lewis Franklin, a former vice president of TRW Inc., the Cleveland-based defense and aerospace equipment maker. Now a research fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, Franklin has used his expertise in export controls as a volunteer liaison for Stanford University's fledgling satellite project and potential launchers.
     A private satellite launch in the United States costs about $4.5 million. Students at the handful of U.S. universities building satellites generally launch their projects at a major discount or pro bono by hitching a ride on larger private or public rockets. Swartwout and his crew, who began building their SAPPHIRE (Stanford Audio Phonic Photographic Infra Red Experiment) in 1994, had an offer from Moscow Bauman State Technical University in Russia for a free launch. All they had to do was get their glittering, 40-pound gadget over there and connect it to the Russian rocket.
     But their plan fell apart after President Clinton signed the 1999 defense bill last fall.
     That bill reclassified commercial satellites as munitionsand turned primary control over the export of commercial satellites from the Commerce Department to the State Department.
     Suddenly, this 10-member team of Stanford students wasn't just trying to ship its class project to Russia. It was trying to export munitions.
     Stanford University would have to become a licensed exporter and hire outside lawyers to protect against any claims that the project might jeopardize national security. And SAPPHIRE would have to get in line behind about 100 commercial applications already apparently backing up at the State Department.
     The whole reason the State Department is handling all satellite export licenses is to protect the national security of the United States" said a State Department official. "We're making sure we have a tab on who gets what and that sensitive technology is safeguarded."
      The policy change was prompted by the 1996 crash of a Chinese rocket that was carrying a satellite built by Loral Space & Communications. Student satellites once slipped past export controllers at the Commerce Department with a routine administrative waiver. But the Loral crash changed all that.
     The accident has become the center of a Justice Department criminal probe. Investigators say U.S. satellite industry officials gave a report on the accident to China that may have contained information about guidance systems. That information, say researchers, could benefit China's long-range missile program.
     The Stanford students actually visited Loral's facility and picked over the wreckage of the satellite, salvaging dozens of connectors that otherwise would have cost them more than $100 each at an electronics store.
     The idea is to give Stanford students the valuable experience of actually building the satellites and not just reading about them," said aeronautics and astronautics professor Robert Twiggs.
     Twiggs, a visiting professor from Weber State University in Utah, came to Stanford University in 1994 to jump-start the Satellite Quick Research Testbed (SQUIRT) -- a small satellite development project -- at Stanford's Space Systems Development Laboratory. Designed for graduate engineering students, the projects are supposed to provide hands-on technical and managerial experience for less than $50,000 each.
     The SAPPHIRE, built in an old basement chemistry lab, has a payload that includes new infrared horizon detectors, a digital camera, a voice synthesizer, and a couple of telemetry and autonomy experiments -- not the stuff of spy masters.
      It's built from materials anyone could buy at a Radio Shack or Fry's Electronics store. Certainly, said Twiggs, there are no trade secrets or national security threats aboard.


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