COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The head of Air Force Space Command said U.S. launch companies should be able to buy rocket motors from decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles to power commercial launches, but at a price that would not put the rest of the commercial small launch industry at a disadvantage.
Current U.S. policy says that launch companies cannot use the rocket motors to launch commercial satellites and can only use them for national security missions in certain instances.
“From a taxpayer perspective, wouldn’t it be better to get some value out of them rather than destroy it?” Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, said during a press briefing April 14 at the 32nd Space Symposium here. “From an Air Force perspective, there’s a sweet spot there because those ICBMs actually have value.”
U.S. Launch companies disagree over whether Congress should allow the Air Force to sell some of the hundreds of decommissioned ICBMs.
Orbital ATK, which uses ICBM solid rocket motors for its Minotaur 4 launch vehicle to carry payloads weighing between 500 and 2,000 kilograms, says lifting the commercial ban on surplus ICBMs would allow it to compete for missions that might otherwise go to Russian rockets and other cheap foreign launchers.
But other small launch ventures, notably Virgin Galactic, which is developing its LauncherOne vehicle for payloads around 200 kilograms, say lifting the ban would give Orbital ATK an unfair advantage. A consortium of eight small launch companies calling themselves the Next-Generation Launch Coalition, wrote the Senate Armed Services Committee in March to oppose any change in current law.
Lawmakers are expected to learn more about the issue at an April 19 hearing titled “The Commercial Space Launch Industry: Small Satellite Opportunities and Challenges,” before the House Science space subcommittee.
“If we make those available — not for free — but available, at the right number, I think there’s a sweet spot there,” Hyten said. “You can’t give ICBMs away. That gives someone an unfair advantage.”
However, the Air Force also needs a small commercial launch sector for the long term.
“Whatever we do with those ICBMs, we can’t destroy the commercial launch sector. “