Emerging commercial launch providers are calling on Congress to reject the prospect of using decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile engines to launch smallsats to avoid damaging the private investment climate. This week the United States House of Representatives’ Space Subcommittee heard testimony on the possibility of the US Air Force making the engines available to private companies.
Emerging commercial launch providers are calling on Congress to reject the prospect of using decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile engines to launch smallsats to avoid damaging the private investment climate.
This week the United States House of Representatives’ Space Subcommittee heard testimony on the possibility of the US Air Force making the engines available. Suitable for launching payloads between 500kg to 2000kg, Orbital ATK (NYSE:OA) would like the opportunity to purchase the engines for commercial use with its Minotaur launch class.
The company believes it can use the motors to launch payloads at competitive prices, and other companies are understood to be interested in the assets too.
Orbital ATK uses the engines for military missions – where it has a 25 for 25 launch success record – but is prohibited from marketing the service otherwise as lawmakers have feared it could undercut solutions offered by the commercial space industry; an area the US has been keen to nurture.
Yet the idea has resurfaced because of a boom in another area, the burgeoning smallsat sector. American smallsat ventures looking to place their crafts into LEO are presented with limited launch options. They can either loft their smallsats as secondary payloads with little control over scheduling, or look abroad and grapple with ITAR and export restrictions until home-grown launchers come on to the market.
One such vehicle will be offered by New Mexico-based Virgin Galactic. The company is developing LauncherOne and has already been contracted by LEO broadband venture OneWeb to perform 39 launches. It is one of a number of nascent commercial launch providers concerned at the prospect of the guidelines being changed.
Fears for investment
George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, told SatelliteFinance: “Private investors are spending billions of dollars to try to revolutionise the global launch industry. These investments are based on 30 years of consistent policy support for commercial launch ventures.
“If the government were to choose to dump excess missile assets into the marketplace, a few big defence contractors would benefit and the rationale for new, private, investment would be lost.”
Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said his organisation – whose membership come from across the industry, but does not include Orbital ATK – had many concerns about changing the existing law.
“We fear that this could have a large impact on the private sector investment, which in turn would cause a significant step backwards in new innovation,” Stallmer said in an emailed comment.
He added that at a minimum Congress needed to fully examine the cost and impact such a change in policy could have on the marketplace.
Meanwhile Jeff Greason, founder of XCOR Aerospace and now CEO of Agile Aero, which specialises in rapid prototyping of launch vehicles, said dumping war-surplus assets would suppress the development of a healthy industry.
“That’s why after World War Two the US government did not just dump all the jeeps and surplus aircraft on the market – it would have damaged the automotive and aircraft industrial base,” he argued.
Greason said that, after many fits and starts, there were “finally signs of a healthy commercial supply base emerging” with around a dozen startups targeting the smallsat launch market.
“In the long run it is more beneficial to both commercial and government customers that a commercially viable supply chain be established than any benefits in the short run from theorised price reductions, which may not even materialise.”
Another up and coming launch provider is Rocket Lab, which will bring its Electron rocket to market by the end of the year.
Bradley Schneider, Rocket Lab’s general manager of its USA operations, said his company is demonstrating the viability of the existing framework, which has enabled it to raise private capital.
Schneider told SatelliteFinance that the use of ICBM assets in the commercial sphere would be in opposition to the “innovation and new technology required to deliver timely performance and economies the industry demands”.
Both Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic are members of the Next Gen Launch Coalition that has urged Congress to oppose the initiative. Along with another NGLC member, Firefly, they are aiming to begin launching payloads between 150kg and 400kg either this year or next.
The Coalition believes failing to limit the use of excess ICBM assets will stifle innovation for emerging commercial space companies, “while favouring a few established aerospace firms”.
Orbital ATK is keen to assuage the fears of its fledgling rivals, which worry that while Minotaur is a heavier vehicle than what they are developing, it could still carry multiple lighter payloads on a single mission.
Responding to a request for comment, Mark Pieczynski, VP of business development for Orbital ATK’s flight systems group, said: “We understand the concerns of the small developing launchers; however, we are not even in the same payload class nor do we plan to bundle payloads.”
“Our market niche is to offer a dedicated vehicle from the range that best suits the satellite’s orbit; we offer that with our Minotaur-class vehicles.”
Pieczynski said Orbital ATK hoped to be allowed to launch once or twice a year, “and bring commercial launches back to the United States to support US launch facilities and, most importantly, the US workforce”.
Congress uncertain over way forward
The House’s Space Subcommittee did not reach any firm conclusions on the ICBM issue.
Representative Brian Babin, chair of the subcommittee, said: “This isn’t a black-and-white issue and the policy outcomes associated with either keeping or modifying existing policy will create winners and losers.”
In his closing remarks Babin emphasised the importance of the US retaining its leadership in space, but seemed unsure as to which was the right path to take at this juncture.
The situation is complicated by factors beyond commercial space policy. At present the US Department of Defense spends millions of dollars a year to maintain its stockpile of decommissioned ICBMs, and will later have to pay more to dispose of them.
Orbital ATK is looking to get the ban lifted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for the next fiscal year, on which preparations have begun.
Russia has converted surplus ICBMs into launch vehicles serving the commercial market. The Dnepr rocket has been operated by ISC Kosmotras in a joint venture with Ukraine. But strained relations between Moscow and Kiev following the annexation of Crimea has seen Dnepr launches suspended.
In December Russian news agency TASS reported that the Dnepr was last launched in March 2015 when it placed Korea’s Kompsat-3A into orbit, and that President Putin had suspended the conversion programme.
Kosmotras was due to launch two smallsats for Iridium Communications this month, but the mission has been postponed indefinitely after the Russian government failed to grant the necessary approvals.