Using ICBMs to lower launch costs

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The competition heats up: Orbital ATK is lobbying Congress to lift a ban on the use of decommissioned ICBM missiles for commercial launches.

Orbital ATK is pressing U.S. lawmakers to end a 20-year ban on using decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) for launching commercial satellites and the effort has raised concern among companies that have invested millions of dollars in potential rival rockets. Orbital Vice President Barron Beneski said in an interview on Friday that the company was pushing Washington to get the ban lifted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that sets defense policy for fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1. The missiles were idled by nuclear disarmament treaties between the United States and Russia in the 1990s.

The company wants to use the solid rocket motors in the surplus missiles to increase the capability of their Minotaur 4 rocket, designed for the small satellite market. Interestingly, Virgin Galactic, who is aiming for this same smallsat market with its LaunchOne rocket, is protesting, and has even garnered the lobbying support of the industry’s trade organization..

“It’s a dangerous precedent when the government tries to inject itself in the commercial marketplace. It can be disruptive, and not for the right reasons,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington DC-based trade organization, said in an interview on Thursday.

Orbital ATK is not asking for exclusive use, so other companies could also obtain surplus missiles for their own use. However, the ATK in Orbital ATK’s name comes from the half of the company that before the merger was an expert in using solid rockets for space. This gives Orbital an advantage here that the other companies do not have, and explains their protests.

Nonetheless, I say tough. The government should surplus these rockets, and let the competitive chips fall where they may. Anything that lowers the cost to put payloads in orbit cannot be a bad thing for the launch industry, as it will serve to increase the number of customers that industry will have and thus help to increase everyone’s sales figures.

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