Op-ed | Dumping excess boosters on market would short-circuit commercial space renaissance

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This column originally appeared as “Same Bad Idea Revisited” in our March 14, 2016 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

Once again the topic of converting excess Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to commercial launchers has returned to Washington.

The current policy — supported by the White House and Congress for over 20 years — states that before excess ICBMs can be used for satellite launches, the Secretary of Defense must determine they are more cost-effective than current commercial services, and that they do not compete with the private sector.

George T. Whitesides, CEO and President, Virgin Galactic. Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson.
George T. Whitesides, CEO and President, Virgin Galactic. Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson.

Converting ICBM’s to launchers was a bad idea when it was brought up the last three times, and it’s an even worse idea now. Two decades of consistent, bipartisan space policy have sparked billions in private investment in a robust domestic commercial space industry. The current Space Transportation Policy, released by the White House in 2013, commits the government to “encouraging … a viable … and competitive U.S. commercial space transportation industry” while avoiding actions that might “discourage, or compete with U.S. commercial space transportation companies.”

The White House didn’t break new ground with the 2013 policy. It simply restated the position of three previous administrations and longstanding federal law revalidated by multiple Congresses.

Thousands of jobs depend on maintaining a sensible policy that encourages private investment and discourages government competition. Congress has also been mindful of the potential negative impact that the conversion and use of excess ballistic missiles would have on the growth of the U.S. commercial space industry. The House Science Committee, addressing this issue contemporaneously with the original White House policy, noted that the “Wholesale conversions of ICBMs into space transportation vehicles risks placing the government in the position of competing with the private sector and could have long-term consequences.” What was true then is even more true now.

Smart government policy and capable entrepreneurs in new and existing companies have created a renaissance in American launch technology. What has worked at the larger launch vehicle level now promises similar success at the small launch vehicle level. Dumping excess boosters into the commercial market would short-circuit that positive future.

The arguments for a change are not strong. Some argue that using these assets would prevent satellite operators considering similar vehicles from going overseas. Three points counter this perspective: first, because several privately funded new small launch vehicles will enter the market in the next 6-18 months, changing the policy now would not provide significantly earlier additional launch capacity. Second, Russian launch vehicles based on excess ballistic missiles have launched only a handful of commercial satellites over their operational history. Third, current pro-commercial policies have resulted in the U.S. share of global commercial launches going from near zero in the mid-1990s to nearly 50 percent today.

Finally, some argue that reusing missile stages could save money because it might reduce the cost of storing old missile stages. The U.S. government is currently storing many hundreds of older ballistic missile stages. The marginal amount that the government would save by giving away a few of these assets is small. However, the cost it would have on American investment, and on the development of new American spaceflight capabilities, would be significant.

Amending the current policy would functionally put the U.S. government in competition with the U.S. commercial launch industry while chilling future investment and development. Investors would reasonably ask, why invest in new launch capabilities if the government can change the rules mid-stream and provide subsidized assets into the market? Industry associations like the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and others have agreed that the current policy is the most likely to encourage innovation and protect the U.S. industrial base.

Consistent policy support from the last four presidential administrations is bringing a new generation of low-cost, responsive launchers to market. In October, NASA awarded contracts to three companies, including our own, to carry small sats to low Earth orbit on rockets scheduled to enter service in 2016 and 2017. The policy is working.

A radical change to a long-agreed consensus would do more harm than good. We urge Congress to recommit to the winning strategy of unwavering support for commercial investment and American launch innovation.


George Whitesides is CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Space Ship Company.