Op-ed | Ending ban on retired ICBMs would allow U.S. companies to reclaim small satellite launch market

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This column originally appeared as “Enabling U.S. Companies To Reclaim the Small Satellite Launch Market” in the March 28, 2016 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

Over the last decade, American launch vehicles have repeatedly lost competitions for launches of small (500-2,000 kilogram) commercial and international satellites because foreign vehicles such as Russia’s Dnepr and Rokot, Europe’s Vega, and India’s PSLV are offered at prices well below the cost of any U.S. vehicle in this class. The reasons behind this pricing disparity are clear: Dnepr and Rokot are re-purposed decommissioned ICBMs, while Vega and PSLV are heavily subsidized by their respective governments. As a result, commercial and international payloads are regularly launched overseas, severely impacting the domestic small launch vehicle industrial base and the launch sites that support these types of launches in Florida, Virginia, California and Alaska. This distortion of the small launch market, which has cost U.S. companies up to $1 billion in lost sales during the last decade, is shown in the chart to the right.

Scott Lehr is President of Orbital ATK's Flight Systems group, which operates the Minotaur family of peacekeeper ICBM-based launch vehicles. Credit: OrbitalATK
Scott Lehr is President of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems group, which operates the Minotaur family of peacekeeper ICBM-based launch vehicles. Credit: OrbitalATK

A common sense solution to this problem exists: excess U.S. ICBM assets can be used by American industry to launch these payloads at market competitive costs. In fact, there are currently several Minotaur launch vehicles in this class that have established a perfect 25-for-25 launch success record over the last 15 years. They have primarily carried out Department of Defense launches, since current U.S. space policy prevents them from launching commercial and international payloads and discourages their use in the civil government market. Use of these retired ICBM assets would enable U.S. launch vehicles to successfully compete with excess Russian strategic rockets and subsidized foreign launchers. This would bring back to our country launch industry-related jobs in vehicle engineering, production, integration and operations — jobs that have been lost to foreign launch providers.

The range of 500-2,000-kilogram payloads is well beyond the planned capability of new launch systems that are in development, such as Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne vehicle that focuses on the very small satellite (up to 200 kilograms) launch market. Utilizing ICBM assets simply increases commercial launch service options and supply base opportunities rather than competing with new entrants.

There are nearly 1,000 excess ICBM rocket motors stored in bunkers requiring annual surveillance, maintenance and testing. The cost to maintain this inventory is not trivial, requiring both government and contractor support that runs into the tens of millions of dollars annually. If these ICBMs are not used for space launches, the U.S. government will ultimately have to pay for their disposal, which is also an expensive and hazardous process. For these reasons, it only makes sense to use these assets productively, following an established process and in a competitive manner.

The U.S. government has been selling surplus hardware for as long as it has been buying materials from suppliers. There is a well-established process used by the government to rid itself of excess inventory that it no longer needs. This process is transparent and open to all interested parties, and it should be used with excess ICBM assets. In addition, the continuation of the current policy provision that requires approval by the DoD on a case-by-case basis will ensure that the use of excess ICBM assets does not unfairly take business away from new-entrant small launch providers.

I urge Congress to change the current law to enable U.S. companies to take back the small satellite launch market by supporting a competitive, domestic solution.
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Scott Lehr is President of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems group, which operates the Minotaur family of peacekeeper ICBM-based launch vehicles.