University-built space payloads may get a lift from deactivated intercontinental ballistic missiles that are now on a trajectory for the scrap heap.

The idea is to utilize the Peacekeeper missile, which was phased out under the mutual nuclear arms reduction agreements signed by U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The missile’s Cold War mission came to an end this month after serving 19 years as a key part of U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy. The mothballing of the Peacekeeper is part of a reduction in U.S. missile forces from 6,000 missiles to between 1,700 and 2,200. Russia’s Putin agreed to pursue a similar course of action.

The Peacekeeper began its development back in 1979, and some nine years later became fully operational. According to the U.S. Air Force, each Peacekeeper was built at a cost of about $70 million. The deactivation is expected to save the Air Force more than $600 million through 2010.

Peacekeeper was designed to carry up to 10 independently targeted warheads. But now they could be tipped with student-built research payloads.

Rather than mothballing and ultimately destroying dozens of the Peacekeeper missiles, Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.) is championing use of the Peacekeepers to launch university payloads into orbit.

Rehberg advanced the idea during the Inland Northwest Space Alliance (INSA) Space Policy Institute meeting, held here September 16-18. The meeting brought together NASA officials, academia and industry experts.

The Missoula-based INSA is a private group created by the University of Montana in 2003. The group is focused on broadening space-related research and commercial applications, particularly in the inland Northwest.

Rehberg asked: “Wouldn’t it be better to take the same amount of money and those missiles to provide the opportunity for the university system to shoot them up into space,” armed not with warheads but student experiments?

“Wouldn’t that make a lot more sense?” Rehberg added . “We have the opportunity to do this as efficiently and effectively as possible. Don’t spend the money on destruction of the missiles. Let’s use them to get some research done and provide an opportunity for the university system.”

Rehberg, who serves on the Appropriation energy and water development, military quality of life and foreign operations subcommittees, said he is teaming with Reps. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) to explore the use of the Peacekeeper.

The idea of using surplus Cold War weaponry to hurl student satellites into orbit is not new. U.S. universities and other groups have used the Dnepr booster, which is sold in the West by ISC Kosmotras, a Russian and Ukrainian company.

Kosmotras was founded in 1997 to market retired R 36-M ballistic missiles that were converted into the silo-launched Dnepr space booster. The R 36-M is known to the West by its NATO classification — the SS-18 missile.

Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Launch Systems Group in Chandler, Ariz. , has the rights to use the Peacekeeper as a new addition to the U.S. Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program (OSP).

Orbital Sciences, Dulles, Va., already has developed the four-stage Space Launch Vehicle Minotaur rocket using a combination of U.S. government-supplied Minuteman 2 motors and the company’s own space launch technologies.

A new addition to Orbital’s line of space launch vehicles is the OSP-2 Minotaur-4 Space Launch Vehicle. That booster melds elements of government-furnished and decommissioned Peacekeeper boosters with technologies from the group’s Pegasus, Taurusand OSP Minotaur line of launch vehicles.

The Minotaur 4 consists of three Peacekeeper solid rocket stages, a commercial Orion 38 fourth-stage motor and subsystems derived from Orbital’s established space launch boosters. Under a 10-year contract with the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles, Orbital is developing and would operate the Minotaur 4 to launch U.S. government-funded satellites into low Earth orbit.

Scott Schoneman, Orbital’s manager of mission development, said the Peacekeeper-based Minotaur 4 is capable of being launched from multiple spaceports.

“Using the Minotaur 4 to launch a number of university payloads is an excellent use of decommissioned government assets, allowing us to provide a low-cost, reliable launch that will also provide great educational benefits to the students involved,” Schoneman said.

Orbital is under contract to provide a Minotaur 4 to launch the first Space Based Space Surveillance satellite for the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Center, Schoneman said. But due to funding constraints of the overall spacecraft development, the launch has been pushed beyond the original 2007 launch date, he said.

The INSA meeting showcased a growing and sophisticated array of university small satellites. But for years, it has been difficult to find affordable rides into Earth orbit for these small spacecraft.

David Klumpar, a research professor and director of the Space Science and Engineering Laboratory at Montana State University in Bozeman, said student access to space is critical for training the next-generation work force.

“It’s important to have folks coming out of our colleges and universities that have direct, hands-on experience,” Klumpar said. “It isn’t good enough to do design studies that don’t result in hardware.”

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...