COMMERCE SAID TO EXCEED AUTHORITY IN LICENSING OF SPACE EXPERIMENT

COMMERCE SAID TO EXCEED AUTHORITY IN LICENSING OF SPACE EXPERIMENT

The head of the House Space Subcommittee says the Commerce Department may be trying a power grab by granting a Massachusetts company an export license for an experiment that is to be flown aboard the Soviet Union's Mir space station.

It's no secret that since space is a sexy subject that the Department of Commerce wants to get its fingers into the jurisdiction of space, Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said at a news conference last week. Is this another power grab of trying to get into the space business?Rep. Nelson said he was angry that Commerce granted an export license to Payload Systems Inc. of Wellesley, Mass., for a protein crystal growth experiment to be carried on the Mir without consulting with NASA, the Transportation Department or Congress.

Rep. Nelson said he was very concerned this could give the Soviets technology that can be used for military purposes.

Payload Systems was granted a license to export an experiment to test techniques for growing protein crystals in weightlessness. Such experiments have been conducted on U.S. spacecraft in the past, including the 1986 shuttle flight taken by Rep. Nelson. But the U.S. space fleet now is grounded and the Soviet spacecraft are the only manned vehicles now available to experimenters.

Byron K. Lichtenberg, who flew on the shuttle in 1983 as a non-astronaut experimenter, founded Payload Systems and has designed the experiment. The firm contacted the Soviets in March 1987 and then applied in October to the Commerce Department for an export license. The license was approved in early February.

In a letter to Commerce Secretary William Verity, Rep. Nelson said the process followed for the Payload Systems license was confusing and must be clarified. He asked Mr. Verity to appear at a subcommittee hearing on the matter.

The federal government last year refused permission for General Motors Corp. and General Electric Co. to launch U.S.-made communications satellites on Soviet rockets on the basis that it could result in a technology transfer to the Soviets.