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House Science Committee on ICBM Use as Launchers: It’s Complicated

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 19, 2016
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Capitol Building
WASHINGTON, D.C. (House Science Committee PR) –
The Space Subcommittee today held a hearing to examine the current state of the small satellite commercial launch industry, which generates hundreds of billions of dollars of economic activity and serves both the private and public sector. Several companies are currently working to supply the growing demand for commercial launches. Witnesses today discussed various policy challenges that may need to be addressed.

Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin (R-Texas): “I am committed to addressing the critical issues facing our commercial space industry and finding common ground and responsible solutions that meet the needs of our nation, grow our economy, and maintain our leadership in space. There is a great deal of promise in the future of space.  But if we fail to provide long-term solutions to the issues our nation faces, we may well lose our leadership in space. I, for one, will not allow that to happen on my watch.”

Significant research and development (R&D) investments are being made in the United States to create and manufacture new types of small satellite technologies and applications. One of the largest barriers that small satellite companies face is the cost of launch.

A number of American companies, in various stages of development, plan to offer dedicated launch services to the small satellite industry in the next few years. These companies promise to provide more flexible launch services such as delivery to unique orbits and rapid replenishment.

One significant policy question surrounds excess intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) motors. These government-owned Cold War era rockets have the potential to provide commercial launch capabilities. However, it is long-standing national policy that excess ICBMs should not be used for commercial launch services.

Those in favor of allowing excess ICBMs to be used for commercial launch services argue that many U.S. small satellites have launched on Russian DNEPR vehicles, derived from Russian ICBMs, and that by modifying existing U.S. policy, U.S. launch services could compete with Russia and bring this business back to America. Those in favor also argue that there is a cost to the taxpayer associated with storing excess ICBMs. By allowing the U.S. commercial launch industry to use excess ICBMs, you not only lower the tax burden, but also create potential revenue derived from the sale of these motors.

However, those that oppose the policy change raise legitimate concerns that allowing excess ICBMs to be used for commercial launch purposes could distort the market in the United States, undermine future investment, and delay innovations that are on the horizon.

Witnesses today also discussed policy implications surrounding access to foreign launch services. A number of companies that build and operate small satellites contend that there isn’t enough capacity in the market at a price they can afford to meet their needs. India has stepped in and offered to fill, in part, this demand and is launching smaller U.S. satellites on their Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) vehicle. Several members question the current ad-hoc policy governing U.S. commercial satellite access to Indian PSLV launches.

For more information on the hearing, including witness testimony and the archived webcast, please visit the Committee’s website.

Subcommittee Discusses Small Satellites
Science Committee Democrats

Today, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space held a hearing titled, “The Commercial Launch Industry: Small Satellite Opportunities and Challenges.” Testifying before the Subcommittee were Mr. Elliot Pulham, Chief Executive Officer of the Space Foundation, and Mr. Eric Stallmer, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

Advances in miniaturization, coupled with greater use of off-the-shelf hardware components, have contributed to reducing the time and costs for developing small satellites.  This has fostered significant growth in the small satellite industry, not only in the United States, but also abroad.  Small satellites, also known as smallsats, range in mass from as little as 10 grams to as much as 500 kilograms.  They are already being used to provide imagery collection for monitoring, analysis, and disaster response, with more applications on the horizon.

Congressman Marc Veasey (D-TX) said in his opening statement, “Smallsat[ellite]s are contributing to the emergence of new start-up companies that aim to provide rapid turn-around in services and technology advancement to improve and expand services at a lower cost, especially in the area of Earth observation and data provision. U.S. leadership in this emerging industry has the potential to both create jobs and economic growth for the nation and to serve as an important source of U.S. innovation in an increasingly competitive and changing global marketplace. Additionally, universities and government agencies are exploring the increased use of smallsats for research, education and training, technology development, and conduct of government operations.”

Witnesses and Democratic Members discussed a number of issues including, challenges in the smallsat market; how the use of dedicated small launch vehicles would increase the options available for smallsat users; policy issues associated with increasing the number of launch options, for example, facilitating access to Indian launchers or allowing the U.S. Air Force to make some portion of its excess Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) rocket motors available for purchase and use in commercial launches; the need to address the orbital debris problem; and the International Space Station’s unique ability to dispense smallsats for educational institutions.

Congressman Veasey added, “One of the major challenges smallsat users face, after developing and building the spacecraft, is finding a way to put the spacecraft in space, and to do so in an affordable and reliable manner…Unfortunately, smallsat users and operators are often constrained in their choice of launch options due to individual requirements, available budgets, and the unique characteristics of each option. As a result, smallsat users and operators must make tradeoffs between factors such as affordability, schedule, risk, and orbital placement.”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) addressed the need for the smallsat market to succeed because of its inspirational value, “I hope this panel can shed additional light on possible solutions to providing smallsat users and operators with more launch options, particularly those that are affordable. Because if this Nation is to maintain its global leadership in technology, we must facilitate the means by which our young are inspired to do great things. Small satellites, along with rocketry and robotics, provide the learning catalysts we so dearly seek and need.”

3 responses to “House Science Committee on ICBM Use as Launchers: It’s Complicated”

  1. passinglurker says:

    Well it would seem that at least some of the concerns could be addressed by taking the savings and profits from selling the old icbm motors, and using that money to invest in the very launchers and companies that feel threatened by it.

  2. Larry J says:

    As a student of aviation and space history, this reminds me of what happened after the end of WWI. The government dumped large numbers of surplus airplanes and engines on the market for low prices. This undercut the aviation manufacturers for many years. For example, you could buy a surplus Liberty engine for maybe $100. That made it hard for companies like Wright to sell newer, better engines. Likewise, when you could buy a surplus Jenny for $400, you weren’t likely to buy a new plane for $2000. It wasn’t until the glut of surplus engines and planes started drying up that companies could make a profit selling new ones.


    There’s also the issue of setting the fair market price for these surplus rocket stages. Who gets to decide what they’re work and on what basis will they make that decision? With security and ITAR restrictions, it isn’t likely that they’d simply sell those engines to whomever is willing to buy. Instead, they’ll likely be sold to companies with existing government contracts like Orbital ATK.

    Orbital has flown a few of their Minotaur IV rockets in the past for a reported $50 million. They were restricted to flying government payloads under the existing rules. The Minotaur IV can launch about 1300 kg to LEO, so it’s cost per kg is quite a bit lower than some of the New Space rockets like Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne. Effectively, Orbital ATK could be getting the engines cheap and use them to undercut the new providers. This would likely drive some of them out of business and dry up investment capital for a long time.

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo says:

    <sarcasm>ICBM’s should be used for prompt delivery of plutonium and U235 the way the lord god Jehova intended them to be used. </sarcasm>

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