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Space Companies Feud Over What to Do With Rockets in ICBM Stockpile

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.

In its first launch to resupply the International Space Station since its rocket exploded last year, Elon Musk’s SpaceX landed its unmanned rocket on a floating ‘drone barge’ in the Atlantic Ocean. The landing, the first ever of a rocket’s first stage at sea, is seen as a breakthrough for commercial spaceflight. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

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.”