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An Air Force Mintaur V rocket, manufactured by Orbital ATK, using surplus ICBM engines, launches. Photo courtesy Orbital ATK.

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Rocket companies eying all those leftover Cold War ICBM engines

Leftover Cold War-era engines from decommissioned U.S. military inter-continental ballistic missiles make pretty good rocket motors and the commercial space industry is battling over whether they should be available for private space launches.

The prospect is currently driving the U.S. Air Force and Congress to start reconsidering a decades-old ban on any commercial use of surplus Minuteman and Peacekeeper missiles or their parts.

It also has has sharply divided the rapidly-growing private space business. Only a couple of companies are in position to use ICBM engines if they become available, and they’re lobbying hard to get the law changed. Almost all the others fear those two could gain unfair competitive advantages, because the engines could come cheap. The bulk of the private rocket industry is urging Congress and the military to say no.

The debate arose  in a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing last week and in the Air Force after a space conference the week before. It has immediate ramifications for Florida. One of the companies pursing the engines, Coleman Aerospace, is based in Orlando. The other, space industry giant Orbital ATK, says it intends to launch at least some ICBM-propelled rockets from Cape Canaveral.

Orbital ATK told FloridaPolitics.com that it estimates there are nearly 1,000 leftover ICBM engines, which the military stores in warehouses in Arizona and Utah, and for which the Air Force is spending $17 million a year to maintain. America’s series of SALT and START nuclear arms reduction treaties with Russia have made them military surplus, legally-unusable for missiles. If they are never used, the Air Force would have to spend far more to eventually dispose of them.

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“We’re working, as is the Air Force, on a fair market value. There is no number being thrown around,” said Mark Pieczynski vice president of business development for Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group.

Representatives of Coleman Aerospace were not available to discuss their plans.

“There is a market for this class satellite,” Pieczynski said. “It’s a market that all the emerging launch vehicle provers simply cannot touch.”

And that’s the crux of the dispute. Big commercial rocket companies like Orbital ATK, United Space Alliance and SpaceX have very big rockets, capable of carrying very big payloads into orbit. Other companies such as Virgin Galactic, Firefly, Vulcan, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab are developing spacecraft that can handle very small payloads for the rapidly-developing nano-satellite market.

There are no private American medium-sized rockets for medium-sized payloads. Companies that want to get satellites into orbit that weigh in the range of roughly 1,000 to 4,000 pounds have several options, none of them ideal. They can hitch rides as secondary cargo on a SpaceX Falcon 9 or a ULA Atlas V, but have to wait for one that’s headed toward their intended vicinity in space. That can take years. They can go up on Indian rockets, subsidized by the India government, but that requires special, hard-to-get waivers of U.S. law. Or they can go up on Russian rockets, which, ironically, use surplus Russian ICBM engines.

Orbital ATK already makes a rocket using surplus American ICBM engines, the Minotaur, but it’s made exclusively for, and used exclusively by, the Air Force. It has a perfect launch record in 25 missions, though it has never blasted off from Cape Canaveral.

Orbital ATK could have an 80-foot-tall, civilian version of the Minotaur rocket ready to launch from Cape Canaveral within two years of getting federal approval to buy the ICBM engines, Pieczynski said.

“There is a need out there. I could reel off a list of satellites that need rides in the future in this class,” he said. And then he named 10 medium-sized commercial satellites ready to go up. “That’s just the next couple of years.”

No, there is not, disputed Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

Most of the satellites in that class already have contracted for rides, and beyond those the need is iffy, Stallmer insisted. He told the same thing to The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space at an April 19 hearing.

Stallmer contends that the medium-size payload market is not big enough to make a new rocket economically feasible in the longterm, even with surplus engines, and predicted that Orbital ATK eventually would start bundling lots of small satellite payloads instead.

Stallmer predicted the Air Force might be willing to sell the ICBM engines for as little as $2 million apiece, which would make the rockets powered by them very inexpensive compared with what other companies have or plan. That prospect would dry up investment money for the emerging companies, and then take away much of the market with what he called government-subsized rockets.

“What is the economic impact of flooding the market with subsidized launch vehicles? What would that do to the small launch companies? I have a pretty good idea,” Stallmer said. “I don’t believe their [Orbital ATK’s] market is this ‘mid-sized’ market.”

Members of the House Subcommittee on Space, particularly Florida U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, a Merritt Island Republican who has Cape Canaveral in his district, sounded interested at the April 19 hearing in changing the law to make the ICBM engines available for civilian rockets.

Posey said he needs a better handle on the uses and prices. But he denounced the alternatives of Indian or Russian rockets, saying that the United States already has forfeited too much of the international rocket market.

“I don’t want them to go overseas by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “I think we lost the commercial market because we over-regulated it while other countries subsided. I think we choked the golden goose.”

Space Subcommittee Chairman U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, a Texas Republican, declared, “We must provide a competitive, legal policy and economic environment or other nations will happily step up.”

Subcommittee member U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat, said he wants to see the ICBM engines “in use for some fashion… to make sure the assets of the United States are used properly, and not just thrown away.”

The dilemma, added subcommittee member U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, is “changing the rules in the middle of the game. It is not an unsolvable formula that we are looking for.”

That’s the overriding theme: finding a price point that would get the ICBM engines into the private market, without killing the emerging private rocket companies that have to pay more for their engines.

Orbital ATK is willing to work with that, Pieczynski said.

The Air Force appears to be as well.

On April 12, at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, General John E. Hyten, commander of the Air Force Space Command, signaled Air Force willingness to sell the engines to Orbital ATK and Coleman Aerospace. This week he walked that back a little, saying it should be a congressional decision.

“I stated that I believe it’s appropriate to consider leveraging the considerable investment that the American taxpayer has made in developing, manufacturing and maintaining these motors,” Hyten said in a statement released Monday by the Air Force. “However, in doing so, we must not put the small launch market at risk. We should study the issue carefully to determine if the engines could be sold to commercial industry at a reasonable price, and in reasonable numbers that do not provide an unfair competitive advantage. Doing so would recoup some of the investment that the taxpayers have made, rather than waiting until the motors become unusable and have to be destroyed.”

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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