April 14, 2016 / 11:40 PM / 3 years ago

Air Force supports using spare missiles for commercial launches

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Reuters) - The head of the United States Space Command said on Thursday he supports a policy change to allow decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to launch commercial satellites, a plan pushed by Orbital ATK Inc and opposed by other private space launch companies.

U.S. Air Force General John Hyten said that spare ICBMs should not be given away for free, nor dumped en masse into the commercial marketplace.

“I would like to figure out how to get some value out of the hundreds of millions investment we have in those excess ICBMs, but we cannot destroy the small launch business in doing that,” said Hyten during a press conference at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “There’s got to be a way to find the sweet spot.”

Hyten noted that the Air Force will not decide the issue, which could affect hundreds of millions of dollars in potential rocket launch orders in coming years. “This is going to be a national policy decision,” he said. Lifting the ban on using mothballed nuclear missiles requires action by Congress.

Orbital ATK is pressing U.S. lawmakers to end a ban on using ICBMs for launching commercial satellites, an initiative that has raised concern among companies, such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, that have invested millions of dollars in potential rival rockets.

Orbital wants the missiles to build a solid-fuel rocket, a technology that Virgin and most of the other startup commercial launch firms do not use. 

Current U.S. policy allows the missile rocket motors to be used to launch military payloads, a service that Orbital has been providing under contract with the Air Force. But the decommissioned missiles cannot currently be used as launch vehicles to fly commercial satellites.

In an interview with Reuters, Doug Loverro, deputy assistant defense secretary for space policy, said more study is needed.

“The last thing we want to do is harm the entrepreneurial space market that we’ve built in this country. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a given that selling (ICBMs) will harm it, nor do I think that it won’t harm it. We don’t have any information one way or another,” Loverro said.

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 Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne.

Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Andrew Hay

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