House committee weighs small launch vehicle policy issues

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WASHINGTON — An April 19 House hearing about potential policy changes that could affect development of small launch vehicles did not result in any consensus on what action, if any, to take on issues that could affect the competitiveness of the industry.

The primary focus of the hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee was a proposal to allow the use of excess intercontinental ballistic missile motors for commercial launches, a change in a 20-year policy limiting their use that has generated strong opposition from many companies developing their own vehicles.

“Flooding the market with cheap government motors would certainly tilt the playing field for the commercial industry,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF). He said most of his organization’s member companies, which include several developing their own small launch vehicles, oppose any change in policy.

The CSF’s membership does not include Orbital ATK, the company most stridently advocating for a policy change. While the company did not testify at the hearing, it did submit a letter to the subcommittee laying out its arguments that access to excess ICBM motors would make the U.S. more competitive in the international launch market while not threatening companies developing smaller vehicles.

“For industry, converting decommissioned ICBM motors for use in commercial launch will level the playing field so American launch providers can compete against Russia and subsidized foreign providers,” Scott Lehr, president of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group, wrote in the letter.

The hearing’s other witness, Space Foundation Chief Executive Elliot Pulham, declined to take a position on the proposed policy change. “This is a fairly recent and highly contentious issue,” he said. “Our view right now is that there is not consensus on this issue, so we really are not going to take a stand one way or another.”

Few members of the committee signaled whether or not they would support a policy change regarding use of excess ICBM motors. “This isn’t a black-and-white issue,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee, in his opening statement. “The policy outcomes associated with either keeping or modifying existing policy will create winners and losers.”

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) suggested some spaceports, like Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), might benefit from commercial use of ICBM motors, increasing the number of launches they host. MARS, along with Space Florida, also submitted letters in support of a policy change.

Stallmer countered that such spaceports might see greater launch activity once new commercial vehicles enter service. “We want to see Orbital launching as many vehicles as they can from MARS and from the other spaceports,” he said. “We see the value, though, without these ICBMs, of launching even more vehicles from those spaceports.”

Some sought some kind of compromise, allowing some limited use of ICBM motors. “I do want to see us not pass up an opportunity to put the ICBMs to work in some positive fashion,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), who, like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), suggested they could be used for government-sponsored missions like orbital debris removal.

The hearing also took up another launch policy issue, regarding access to Indian launches. U.S. companies that want to launch from India must obtain an export waiver, granted on a case-by-case basis. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is leading a review on whether the waiver system should be replaced with a more permanent solution.

The CSF is opposed to any change that would make it easier for U.S. satellites to launch from India, arguing those launches are government subsidized, Stallmer said. He added, though, that he was open to allowing the waiver system to continue for at least the near future if demand for launches outstrips the supply of available vehicles.

Pulham, though, was not particularly concerned about any danger to the U.S. launch industry posed by Indian vehicles, citing their low launch rates. “I do not see them as a clear and present danger to U.S. launchers quite yet,” he said.