Orbital Wants to Use Old Missiles to Launch Commercial Satellites

A Minotaur V rocket carrying NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lifts off from at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. (Credit: NASA/Chris Perry)
A Minotaur V rocket carrying NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lifts off from at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. (Credit: NASA/Chris Perry)

Orbital ATK would like to expand its use of old ballistic missile engines for commercial launches.

Orbital Vice President Barron Beneski said in an interview on Friday that the company was pushing Washington to get the ban lifted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that sets defense policy for fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1.

The missiles were idled by nuclear disarmament treaties between the United States and Russia in the 1990s….

Orbital said it wants the missiles to build a Minotaur 4 launch vehicle capable of lifting about four times the weight of small rockets like LauncherOne, which is being developed by Richard Branson’s California-based Virgin Galactic.

“It’s not a matter of us taking business away from them. It’s a matter of us filling a void in the Minotaur 4 market and competing it internationally,” Orbital’s vice president of business development Mark Pieczynski said.

Orbital ATK incorporates leftover Minuteman and Peacekeeper motors in its Minotaur line of launch vehicles, which are used primarily for government payloads. However, their use for commercial launches has been banned for the past 20 years.

Companies that are developing small satellite launch vehicles say lifting the ban would hurt them. Writing in SpaceNews Magazine last month, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides wrote:

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.

Read Whiteside’s full op-ed piece.