Orbital ATK [OA] wants the Air Force to make its roughly 1,000 excess ICBM motors available for purchase and use in commercial launches.

Orbital ATK Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for Flight Systems Mark Pieczynski told Defense Daily Thursday the company would potentially use the motors in its Minotaur launch vehicle, which is currently restricted by law to using these excess motors for Defense Department flights. He said Orbital ATK would use these engines in Minotaur to compete for launches in the 500-2,000 kg class to low earth orbit (LEO).

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

Federal law says the government shall not convert any missile once used as an ICBM and declared excess to United States national defense needs to a space transportation vehicle configuration nor transfer ownership of any such missile to another person, unless it meets certain requirements and is certified by the defense secretary. Orbital ATK spokesman Barry Beneski said this policy was created to avoid competing with the commercial sector and, after 20 years, just doesn’t make sense anymore as there is still no viable U.S. commercial launcher in the 500 to 2,000 kg payload class.

“The business is being sent overseas because American launch companies, including Orbital ATK, can’t compete,” Beneski said. “Keeping the policy in place just doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Pieczynski said Russia currently dominates the 500-2,000 kg class of launches because Russia does not restrict the use of its excess ICBMs. He said Orbital ATK would be open to competition for these excess ICBM motors, though its unclear what other companies would bid for these motors. A number of emerging launch companies are developing their own next-generation rockets, but Pieczynski said they are smaller than the 500-2,000 kg class.

These companies include Virgin Galactic, Firefly Space, Rocket Lab and Masten Space Systems. Pieczynski said Virgin Galactic would probably oppose the Air Force making excess ICBMs commercially available. The company did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did Firefly, Rocket Lab nor Masten.

Pieczynski said the Air Force is in favor of Orbital ATK’s proposal. The Air Force said it would not be able to respond by press time for this story.

The Air Force, in its fiscal year 2017 budget request, is proposing a number of changes to its Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP), which provides responsive space and research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) launch vehicle support to agencies using commercial launch systems and excess ballistic missile assets. The service is proposing deferring launch vehicle acquisition, processing, launch services support, mission assurance and operations to launch RDT&E payloads. The Air Force also wants to defer use of motors for commercial rideshare of RDT&E payloads and to offset commercial data costs.

The Air Force also reduced its RSLP budget request along with these proposed deferrals. The service’s FY ’17 request of $11 million represents the low point in a five-year period. The Air Force was given $31 million in FY ’16 and anticipates requesting $20 million in FY ’18.

Virgin Galactic said on its website LauncherOne will now be able to launch 200 kg into the standard sun-synchronous orbit most commonly desired by small satellite missions for a price less than $10 million. Firefly said its rocket would also launch 200 kg to sun synchronous orbit.

Pieczynski said the first three Minotaur stages are excess ICBMs. The rest of the rocket, including upper stages and avionics, are commercially-procured. The excess ICBM motors are from Minuteman and Peacekeeper rockets.