WASHINGTON — A U.S. Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel approved a recommendation April 28 calling for no change in current policy that restricts the use of excess intercontinental ballistic missile motors for commercial launch vehicles.
The FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) approved the recommendation during a meeting here after hearing a request from the company most interested in using those motors that it defer action on the recommendation.
COMSTAC recommended to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) that, in any discussions with other agencies and Congress, it “support the maintenance of existing policy with respect to the use of excess ICBM assets in order to sustain the continued growth of the commercial U.S. launch sector.”
The possibility of changing that policy has emerged in recent weeks as Orbital ATK, whose Minotaur vehicles use ICBM motors, sought to lift current policy restrictions that limit their use to government-sponsored missions. The company has argued that a lack of launch capacity has forced satellites built in the U.S. to seek launches on Russian or other foreign vehicles, if they can find rides at all.
“In the last ten years in particular, we’ve seen a large outflux of opportunities that has gone to vehicles like the [Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle] in India and to the Dnepr in particular,” said Charles Precourt, vice president and general manager of propulsion systems of Orbital ATK and a COMSTAC member, during a discussion about the recommendation. “We see an opportunity to fill that void.”
COMSTAC’s business and legal working group crafted the recommendation during an April 27 meeting, where members cited concerns that allowing commercial use of ICBM motors could harm ongoing development of small launch vehicles projected to enter service within the next few years.
Richard DalBello, vice president of business development and government affairs at Virgin Galactic, one of several companies developing small launchers, noted that the current policy restricting use of ICBM motors has been reviewed twice by the White House since it was put in place in the 1990s, most recently by the Obama Administration in 2013. In both cases, he said, those reviews recommended no changes.
“I know the issue is again being asked now,” he said, “but we haven’t seen anything as an industry that has changed today that would urge us to reach a different solution.”
Precourt, who was not present at that working group meeting and participated in the main COMSTAC meeting by phone, asked members to delay a decision on the recommendation to give companies time to meet and develop a possible compromise position.
“The policy has been successful in many regards,” he acknowledged, “but I think it has led in this one area of the market, which is principally payloads that are above 200 to 300 kilograms in size, to vacate the U.S. market and go overseas.”
DalBello and others, though, believed that deferring a decision on the recommendation to the next COMSTAC meeting in October was ill-advised, given potential congressional action on the issue in a defense authorization bill. “The timeliness is right now,” DalBello said. “This will be done by October.” The committee later voted to approve the recommendation.
At the April 27 markup by the House Armed Services Committee of its National Defense Authorization Act, members approved an amendment by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) that requires studies by the Defense Department and the Government Accountability Office on commercial use of ICBM motors. The DoD study would be due to Congress by September 1, and the GAO study 90 days later.
The amendment, though, does not take a particular stand on the issue, noting the potential “negative consequences” to launch vehicle developers that could result from a policy change. “If we’re going to do a study on this, it needs to be fair, balanced, and gives policymakers the information that we need,” said Christopher Ingraham, senior legislative assistant for Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OKla.), discussing the amendment during a COMSTAC working group discussion April 27.
Another member of Congress also raised questions about commercial use of ICBM motors. “You’re seeing tremendous innovation by private industry, and the question is, does the federal government support that and complement that, or does it throw up roadblocks to that?” asked Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation breakfast event here April 29.
Kilmer specifically mentioned the issue regarding use of excess ICBM motors. “I don’t want to see us do something that would stifle the commercial U.S. small launch industry,” he said.