The U.S. Air Force plans to finish a study later this year on the potential impact of changing existing law to allow surplus intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) motors to be used on commercial space launches, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a new report Aug. 16

While the Department of Defense and NASA use such motors to launch small and medium payloads on Orbital ATK [OA] Minotaur rockets, the Commercial Space Act of 1998 bars the motors from commercial launches. The law was enacted partly to encourage the development of the U.S. commercial launch industry.

Orbital ATK's Minotaur IV launch vehicle. Photo: Air Force.
Orbital ATK’s Minotaur IV launch vehicle. Photo: Air Force.

But Congress has urged the Air Force to study the benefits and costs of changing the law, as many companies are now developing small launch vehicles. Allowing the motors to be used for commercial launches would give launch customers more options and would save the government overhead costs, proponents say.

The Air Force currently spends about $17 million a year to store, maintain and monitor about 720 surplus motors at Camp Navajo in Arizona and Hill Air Force Base in Utah, the GAO said. Most are motors for the Minuteman II and Peacekeeper, land-based ICBMs that are no longer in service.

But several commercial launch providers and an organization representing investors have expressed concern that allowing ICBM motors to be used for commercial launches could fuel uncertainty in the commercial space market and discourage private investment, the GAO said. Preparing motors for commercial use could also strain DoD’s workforce.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which called for the Air Force study, said it sees pros and cons to changing the law.

“The committee believes that modification to the law to allow for increased commercial use of decommissioned U.S. ICBM motors could yield benefits for the U.S. domestic launch industry and payload launching capacity while also saving the U.S. Air Force excess motor storage costs,” the HASC wrote in its report on the fiscal year 2017 defense authorization bill. “However, the committee also recognizes concerns regarding unintended negative consequences for the U.S. commercial space industrial base resulting from such a change in policy.”

The GAO’s 58-page report is addressed to the leaders of six congressional panels that oversee defense and space, as well as to several individual lawmakers.