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The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) is a set of US regulations governing the use and sharing of technologies with significant military implications, also known as export control. SSI and aerospace industry as a whole operate under the authority of ITAR, as many rocket, satellite, and aerospace technologies provide the US military advantages over other countries that the US government has sought to maintain. While the efficacy and utility of this policy are debated [1], the regulations still apply to SSI and members of the space industry, and violations carry significant fines and potentially decades-long prison terms. As a Stanford entity, SSI's activities are overseen by the Stanford Export Control Office, who works to ensure that no ITAR violations occur. An ITAR violation is performing an export activity without a license from the US State Department. This article discusses the important concepts of ITAR and their applicability to SSI.

Important Terms and Concepts


§120.17 defines export as:

  • Sending or taking a defense article out of the United States in any manner, except by mere travel outside of the United States by a person whose personal knowledge includes technical data; or
  • Transferring registration, control or ownership to a foreign person of any aircraft, vessel, or satellite covered by the U.S. Munitions List, whether in the United States or abroad; or
  • Disclosing (including oral or visual disclosure) or transferring in the United States any defense article to an embassy, any agency or subdivision of a foreign government (e.g., diplomatic missions); or
  • Disclosing (including oral or visual disclosure) or transferring technical data to a foreign person, whether in the United States or abroad; or
  • Performing a defense service on behalf of, or for the benefit of, a foreign person, whether in the United States or abroad.

A launch vehicle or payload shall not, by reason of the launching of such vehicle, be considered an export for purposes of ITAR. However, for certain limited purposes, controls may apply to any sale, transfer or proposal to sell or transfer defense articles or defense services.

Exporting (by any of the above definitions) without proper licensure is a federal offense punishable by hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines or twenty years in federal prison. Institutions whose members commit ITAR violations also have significantly reduced chances of winning federal contracts and other government bids.

Defense Article

§120.6 defines Defense Article to refer to any item listed in Part 121, the United States Munitions List (USML). This term includes technical data recorded or stored in any physical form, models, mockups or other items that reveal technical data directly relating to items designated in §121.1 (the USML). It also includes forgings, castings, and other unfinished products, such as extrusions and machined bodies, that have reached a stage in manufacturing where they are clearly identifiable by mechanical properties, material composition, geometry, or function as defense articles. It does not include basic marketing information on function or purpose or general system descriptions.

Significant Military Equipment

§120.7 specially classifies certain defense articles with “substantial military capability” from Part 121 as Significant Military Equipment (SME), subject to additional controls.

Major Defense Equipment

§120.8 defines Major Defense Equipment to mean any SME with R&D costs above $50M or production costs above $200M.

Defense Service

§120.6 defines Defense Service as:

  • The furnishing of assistance (including training) to foreign persons, whether in the United States or abroad in the design, development, engineering, manufacture, production, assembly, testing, repair, maintenance, modification, operation, demilitarization, destruction, processing or use of defense articles;
  • The furnishing to foreign persons of any technical data controlled under the ITAR, whether in the United States or abroad; or
  • Military training of foreign units and forces, regular and irregular, including formal or informal instruction of foreign persons in the United States or abroad or by correspondence courses, technical, educational, or information publications and media of all kinds, training aid, orientation, training exercise, and military advice.

Technical Data

§120.10 defines Technical Data as:

  • Information, other than software, which is required for the design, development, production, manufacture, assembly, operation, repair, testing, maintenance or modification of defense articles. This includes information in the form of blueprints, drawings, photographs, plans, instructions or documentation.
  • Classified information relating to defense articles and defense services on the U.S. Munitions List and 600-series items controlled by the Commerce Control List;
  • Information covered by an invention secrecy order; or
  • Software directly related to defense articles.

Importantly, the above definition does not include information concerning general scientific, mathematical, or engineering principles commonly taught in schools, colleges, and universities, or information in the public domain or telemetry data. It also does not include basic marketing information on function or purpose or general system descriptions of defense articles.

Public Domain

Public domain, defined in §120.11 for the purposes of the ITAR, refers to all information that is available:

  • Through sales at newsstands and bookstores;
  • Through subscriptions which are available without restriction to any individual who desires to obtain or purchase the published information;
  • Through second class mailing privileges granted by the U.S. Government;
  • At libraries open to the public or from which the public can obtain documents;
  • Through patents available at any patent office;
  • Through unlimited distribution at a conference, meeting, seminar, trade show or exhibition, generally accessible to the public, in the United States;
  • Through public release (i.e., unlimited distribution) in any form (e.g., not necessarily in published form) after approval by the cognizant U.S. government department or agency;
  • Through fundamental research in science and engineering at accredited institutions of higher learning in the U.S. where the resulting information is ordinarily published and shared broadly in the scientific community.

Fundamental Research

Fundamental research is defined as basic and applied research in science and engineering where the resulting information is ordinarily published and shared broadly within the scientific community, as distinguished from research the results of which are restricted for proprietary reasons or specific U.S. Government access and dissemination controls.

Applied research is further defined as a systemic study to gain knowledge or understanding necessary to determine the means by which a recognized and specific need may be met. It is a systematic application of knowledge toward the production of useful materials, devices, and systems or methods, including design, development, and improvement of prototypes and new processes to meet specific requirements.

University research will not be considered fundamental research if:

  • The University or its researchers accept other restrictions on publication of scientific and technical information resulting from the project or activity, or
  • The research is funded by the U.S. Government and specific access and dissemination controls protecting information resulting from the research are applicable.

The United States Munitions List (USML)

This section (§121.1) is extraordinarily comprehensive, and can be read here. In the portions relating to aerospace technologies, certain items of interest to SSI are included, such as essentially all components of Class 3 (not L3) rockets and certain components in high-precision imaging satellites. No balloon technologies except those designed explicitly for military purposes are subject to US Export Controls.


ITAR is interpreted differently at various universities within the US. Stanford's interpretation of the ITAR involves an ongoing discussion regarding the definition of "fundamental research". SSI works to ensure its activities fall within the purview of fundamental research and in compliance with the ITAR by frequently publicizing information about group activities (such as through this Wiki), securing group property, not engaging in military training, and otherwise ensuring appropriate conduct.