They were once among the fiercest weapons of the Cold War, capable of delivering nuclear warheads to any place on the planet. But for years the Pentagon’s stockpile of intercontinental ballistic missiles have been living out a peaceful retirement, holstered in underground, climate-controlled bunkers where they are periodically maintained and tested by the Air Force.
To at least one company, that’s a waste of a perfectly good rocket.
Orbital ATK wants to unearth the dormant missiles and repurpose them to launch commercial satellites into orbit. Russia has released its Soviet-era ICBMs into the commercial market, the company argues, so the Pentagon should be allowed to sell its unused ICBMs as well.
But to do that, Congress would have to ease a 20-year-old restriction that prohibits the sale of the missile motors for commercial use. And that has touched off a rancorous battle that has extended from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill, where Congress is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue Tuesday.
It has also consumed the growing commercial space industry, which fears that the government’s release of the motors onto the market would undercut the industry just as it is getting momentum.
Fueled by billionaires and outside investors, commercial space has entered something of a renaissance, launching cargo and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, developing space tourism businesses and competing for commercial satellite launches.
The industry is also reigniting interest in space, pulling off one feat after another. Elon Musk’s SpaceX landed a rocket on a ship at sea, Jeffrey P. Bezos’s Blue Origin flew and landed the same rocket three times in a row, and Bigelow Aerospace delivered its expandable habitat to the space station. And that was all just in the past few weeks. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Now some fear that the government-subsidized ICBMs could upend the market.
“We are gravely concerned that any change to this policy could have a dramatic impact on the innovation and investment in the commercial space industry,” said Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “We don’t want to stop that progress with unfair government competition.”
A sale of the motors would change long-standing policy and effectively allow the taxpayer-subsidized government to compete with private industry.
“There are a range of commercial firms that are spending literally billions of dollars of private capital to try to innovate our way forward,” said Richard DalBello, the vice president of business development and government affairs for Virgin Galactic. “This private capital entered the market understanding what the regulatory and policy environment was.”
If Congress eased the long-standing restriction, it would “essentially pull the rug out from under their feet, and it would cause a ripple effect that would make people think twice about investing in the future.”
Orbital ATK, though, said it is perplexed by the backlash. The Dulles, Va.-based company said it has no plans to compete with U.S. firms such as Virgin Galactic, which plans to launch small satellites on its LauncherOne rocket. If granted the use of the Air Force’s ICBMs, Orbital ATK would use them to propel much bigger rockets.
“It’s like I have a tractor-
trailer, and I’m going to move your box of donuts,” said Ed Fortunato, Orbital ATK’s senior vice president of government relations. “It’s just a completely different market.”
The Air Force has nearly 1,000 Minuteman and Peacekeeper missiles sitting in bunkers at places such as Hill Air Force Base in Utah and Camp Navajo in Arizona that will eventually have to be destroyed.
“It’s a lot more economical, and it’s a lot more prudent to use these for purposeful destruction like launch instead of going on and blowing them up,” said Mark Pieczynski, Orbital ATK’s vide president of business development.
“If the Russians are effective in that class launch, and are using excess ICBMs to compete in the commercial market, why isn’t this country doing the same thing?” he said.
DalBello said that even if Orbital ATK wanted to launch larger satellites, there’s nothing to prevent it from delivering the same kind of smaller satellites Virgin plans on launching.
“This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how payloads are manifested on a launch vehicle,” he said.
In an interview, Gen. John Hyten, the commander of the Air Force Space Command, said the Pentagon would “like to get some utility out of [the missiles] because we’ve spent an enormous amount of taxpayer dollars building them.”
But he said the Air Force is also counting on industry to continue to innovate and bring down the cost of launching payloads to orbit.
Industry “is going to be the engine that drives our access to space in the future,” he said. “So we can’t do anything that destroys the commercial launch business.”
He added that he thinks there is “a sweet spot” that would allow the release of the missiles without hurting the industry.
“We don’t have to give the ICBMs away,” he said. “There’s a value on them.”