Monday, November 11, 2019

Report to Members 6 - AMSAT-NA Board of Directors 2019

Here's a summary of the efforts to date to increase and enable open source engineering policy at AMSAT-NA.

My credentials, positions, and goals with open source are clear. They were established in my candidate and campaign statement, and in writings to the board of directors after the beginning of the 2019 term.

In response, Tom Clark (Director of AMSAT-NA) requested some agenda items for discussion at the in-person board of directors meeting at Space Symposium 2019.

Tom wrote:

"One item I'd like to add to the agenda, as circulated by Joe, is addressed to Michelle. It is quite obvious the O.R.I. and the people on the [Ground-station] email list should be a significant part of AMSAT's GOLF-TEE, GEO and AREx (Amateur Radio Exploration) future activities. I'd like to have some discussion on how the groups can work together. This should include the hot-button topic of the GEO Echostar 9 commercial activity fits into the scheme of amateur radio especially since amateur frequencies are not a part of the picture."

I had requested to the board an agenda item for recognizing Open Research Institute as an AMSAT Member Society. Specifically, to provide a formal structure for safe, sane, and legal open source work for the North American amateur satellite community.

I explained at the Symposium in-person board meeting that Open Research Institute was working with an EFF-recommended law firm to create a written policy for open source communications satellite work for the amateur satellite service, and that we were proceeding with EAR certification based on this work.

None of these items were put on the agenda, which was a big disappointment. There was no call for new business.

However, there was another item on the agenda that will greatly affect open source engineering policy, and that was a set of legal memos from a consulting company that had been contracted to provide them to AMSAT-NA.

These memos are a summary of the ITAR/EAR landscape. They are intended to be a first step towards a written ITAR/EAR policy. That's the good news. The bad news is that both the policy and the company are not oriented towards the open source carve-outs. The summaries are written from the point of view of a consulting firm that focuses squarely on commercial, proprietary, and secret work.

We received the memos the day before the consulting firm was due to meet via telephone during the morning of the second day of the in-person board meeting.

These memos are not bad work products. They are simply the wrong direction. If followed down their logical path, they will lead to two serious and completely unnecessary negative consequences for the organization.

First, the regulatory burden placed on volunteers will be enormous. The cost of compliance with proprietary and secret ITAR/EAR is high. There's documentation that describes what is involved with implementing for-profit oriented ITAR/EAR policies. I brought it up before when recommending GitHub Enterprise as a minimal IT intervention to bring AMSAT-NA into compliance with proprietary ITAR.

Second, the memos appeared to be an answer to a set of instructions that limit the number of organizations that AMSAT-NA wants to work with. This did not appear to include Libre Space, Open Research Institute, and others. Using a written ITAR/EAR policy to exclude organizations that are showing up and contributing significant open source technology and regulatory work is not what many members want. It's the opposite and is incompatible.

Third, AMSAT-NA and ARISS are not for-profit companies. They are organizations with a very large educational component. There is a big risk that embracing proprietary ITAR/EAR policies will end up damaging the educational non-profit status that both organizations currently emphasize and enjoy. There is an obvious alternative that is designed for organizations like AMSAT, and it is not the sort of ITAR direction that this particular consulting firm produced in their summary memos.

Given that I had to make a lot of inferences about these summaries, I asked Joe Spier (and cc'd the board of directors) what instructions were given the consulting firm. This would let me see for sure where the discussion was expected to be going, and what assumptions were being made. I made it clear that was why I wanted the instructions, and that I wanted to work back to the assumptions in order to address any serious disagreements on the direction AMSAT-NA should take. This is part of my job as a director.

I asked for this on 4 November 2019. As of today I haven't gotten a copy of what was sent to the consulting firm. I'm optimistic that it will eventually arrive.

I started looking forward to the first AMSAT-NA teleconference, where I could ask about the memo instructions, ask about member society status for groups like Libre Space and ORI, bring up the Rent-a-GEO opportunity, talk about all the GEO progress made in the open source community and how it can help AMSAT-NA.

Specifically, there is an open source ADAC system with space heritage from Libre Space that would be an excellent place to start. I brought this system up in the in-person board meeting. No interest was expressed, but getting the point across is why I'm there. There's some very interesting open source thruster R&D going on, and several really good complete open source IHU systems. The open source communications systems work that I'm most involved in is just one part of a much larger and rapidly developing community.

So, about that next board meeting. The first Tuesday of the month of November came and went. There was some confusion about whether or not there would be a meeting. There was then some discussion about whether or not there were to be monthly or quarterly or "as needed" teleconferences going forward. Over the past few years, monthly teleconferences have been scheduled. These conferences can be called as a board meeting, and motions can be passed and business handled.

During the in-person board meeting at Symposium, it was asserted by some board members that the regular monthly teleconferences "were not productive" and that there were too many of them. I was surprised to hear this, and said so. The explanation was that nothing much happened and they were not needed. They should be less often or called "as necessary". To me, this means increased uncertainty and potential substantial delays between things getting done.

Given the financial challenges AMSAT-NA faces, and given the large amount of work discussed during the two-day in-person meeting, it didn't seem plausible to me that monthly meetings throughout the rest of the year were unnecessary or unproductive, and so I said so.

After the 4 November 2019 teleconference didn't happen, I asked when the next board meeting would be. I have not received an answer yet.

When the next board meeting does happen, I'll bring up all the things I have described here, again.

I am optimistic that the written policy work direction can be changed, and that open source alternatives to many, if not all, of the major subsystems of AMSAT-NA satellites can be adopted to huge positive effect.

Worst case, this may require leadership change in engineering. Jerry Buxton refused to answer a question about unused/misplaced hardware, refused to answer questions about missing firmware donation, and refused to answer questions about the status of the current ADAC system. These questions were all submitted in writing.

Multiple engineering volunteers spoke with me at length at Symposium 2019 about their experiences, what they needed, and what they wanted. A lot of them also volunteer on open source projects, including Phase 4 Ground. The lack of communication and cooperation from engineering leadership is not something that the rank and file of AMSAT-NA engineering exhibits.

I followed up with two or three others after I got home from Symposium. I'm here to help engineering wherever and however possible, regardless of any refusal at the board level to cooperate or collaborate. Life is way too short to give up on getting things done and having fun in the process.

Questions and comments welcome and encouraged.

You can write me directly at

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