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Plan to Sell Old ICBMs Stirs Controversy

 

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An Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft approaches the International Space Station on Dec. 9, 2015. (Photo: NASA)

Selling decommissioned ICBMs for satellite launches would “tilt the playing field,” creating a financial disadvantage for private aerospace firms that already have spent tens of millions of dollars developing their own launch capabilities, said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

“There’s a lot of concern with this and how it could disrupt the marketplace (and), disrupt the private sector investment,” he told lawmakers Tuesday.

The change in the law is being recommended by Orbital ATK, a Virginia-based aerospace firm that argues U.S. launch providers already operate at a competitive disadvantage because Russia, Europe and India heavily subsidize their launch industries.

Russia already uses its decommissioned ICBMs to build vehicles that are sold to U.S. and international small satellite companies, according to the company.

Allowing U.S. firms to buy decommissioned ICBM motors “at a fair price” would be a boon to taxpayers, the U.S. aerospace industry and suppliers, Scott Lehr, president of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group, wrote in a letter Monday to key lawmakers on the House committee.

“U.S. Government customers will pay less to launch their payloads with a competitive alternative to Russia; the military will reduce the cost of maintaining old property, and eventually additional costs to demilitarize them; and the government will receive a modest income from the sale of the motors,” he wrote.

Orbital also contends the payloads the company would deliver on vehicles using the ICBM motors would be larger than the payloads being launched by many of the smaller companies most opposed to the ICBM sale plan. And it wouldn’t be unprecedented: Orbital has already used the Minotaur for 25 launches for the Pentagon.

The proposal has the backing of Space Florida, created by the state to promote the industry. Its chief operating officer, James Kuzma, said the ability to repurpose surplus ICBMs offers “significant benefits to the U.S. launch community.”

Hyten of the Air Space Command told reporters in Colorado Thursday he’s open to the idea of finding a use for missiles that will otherwise be scrapped — as long as their price wouldn’t undercut the commercial space industry.

“From a taxpayer perspective, wouldn’t it be better to get some value out of all of that, rather than just destroy them?” he said. “From an Air Force perspective, I think there is a sweet spot there because those ICBMs actually have value. And if we just make those available, not for free, but available as part of that small business at a right number, I think there is a sweet spot there, somewhere, that we can find in order to do that.”

Some lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing seemed cool to the idea.

At the prodding of Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., Stallmer told the panel it costs a private company about $30 million for to develop and build an engine similar to the ICBM motor needed to deliver a payload between 1,200 and 1,500 kilograms.

And Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said he’d prefer using decommissioned missiles for pressing needs, like helping to remove space debris that threatens satellites.

“Maybe we can dedicate these ICBMs to missions like that rather than try to undermine our people in the private sector who’ve invested huge amounts of money in order to build this capability without thinking the federal government was going to change the rules of the game,” he said.