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Minotaur 4 launch
The Minotaur IV, which uses excess Peacekeeper ICBM motors for its lower stages, made its inaugural launch earlier this year, carrying a hypersonic test payload on a suborbital flight. (credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.)

An embarrassment of riches


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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision earlier this year concerning a protest filed by SpaceX shows that an issue first raised over 20 years ago is still around and kicking. SpaceX protested the award of a launch for NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission to Orbital Sciences Corporation. The basis of the protest was that Orbital’s Minotaur V launch vehicle uses surplus ballistic missile components, specifically the first stage from a decommissioned LGM-118 Peacekeeper ICBM. So here we go again.

From the viewpoint of some in private industry the new surfeit of surplus missiles offered some real opportunities. However, for other firms that included the opportunity for disaster.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s the space launch community was roiled by the prospect of surplus missiles becoming available. In 1985 NASA had tried desperately to stop the conversion of Titan II ICBMs for space launch; after the loss of the Shuttle Challenger such objections stopped but were replaced a few years later by protests by private industry.

START worrying

President Reagan’s Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was great news in terms of international tensions but the secondary effects were viewed with alarm in some quarters. The START treaty would remove the whole Minuteman II force from the operational silos, a total of some 500 missiles. And after the Pentagon divvied up the ICBMs and their rocket motors for such purposes as re-entry vehicle testing, targets for strategic defense programs, and for rocket sled propulsion, there were at somewhere around 150 to 200 complete missiles left over for what-have-you. Add to that total the 50 Peacekeepers that were also being decommissioned, the 40 or so unconverted Titan II’s still in the warehouse at Norton AFB, and the planned removal of the USN’s Poseidon SLBM missile from service, and you had enough potential rockets’ red glare to keep lots of people happy for a long time.

From the viewpoint of some in private industry the new surfeit of surplus missiles offered some real opportunities. However, for other firms that included the opportunity for disaster. You potentially had enough rockets on hand to make sure that some new firms seeking to offer launch services were strangled in their cribs as well as to make things very tough for some older companies that were sitting pretty.

The DOT position, combined with the industry lobbying efforts, more or less indifference in the Pentagon, and no pressing need for more small ELVs, all served to put the brakes on the idea.

The idea of using the surplus missiles for space launch was not just a theoretical concept, either; people were actively pursuing the idea. The USAF office that managed the Boeing contract to launch Minuteman missiles for re-entry testing came to the Pentagon and suggested that, for little more than Pentagon pocket change, they could build a space launch version at a per mission cost that was several million dollars less than that for an Orbital Sciences Pegasus. Some long established firms, including some not noted for any previous work with rockets, called the Pentagon and asked about proposing surplus Minutemen for the USAF’s small ELV contract—and were told that it would be a bad idea, given that the START Treaty had not even been signed yet. Unfortunately, Lockheed apparently did not make such a phone call, proposed using surplus Poseidons, and was disqualified from NASA’s small ELV contact because the Navy had not released them. Meanwhile, a nice fellow associated with a university called around Washington DC, bending ears and dropping important names like crazy, saying that it would only be reasonable if he were given a mere 1% of the surplus Minutemen to launch scientific missions of an unspecified kind, an effort that would, by the way, require unspecified launch facilities and unspecified launch crews as well.

But while some companies proposed uses for the missiles, other firms went on the offensive to make sure they were not made available to anyone. McDonnell Douglas (MDAC), maker of the Delta II booster that was being used to launch the USAF’s GPS satellites, became highly concerned that Martin Marietta would propose use of modified Titan II ICBM’s with solid motor strap-ons for the same mission. MDAC ran around Washington with an analysis paper that said the surplus aircraft engines dumped on the US market after World War 1 had so damaged US industry that the US was forced to use British engines in its P-51 fighters in World War 2. This was reaching pretty far back for a reason not to use surplus hardware. It was reaching pretty far down, too; the assertion was complete nonsense.

Orbital Sciences, offering its new small ELVs to the Air Force and NASA as well as commercial payloads, opposed the use of Minuteman for space boosters. As it turned out, the START Treaty did not get signed in time for the missiles to be a factor in the NASA and USAF competitions for small ELVs, both of which OSC’s Pegasus air-launched booster won. OSC also strongly opposed any US assistance or cooperation with potential foreign competitors, such as Italy’s attempt to build its own version of the Scout booster.

All these concerns impressed some people in the Department of Transportation’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which came out with a position that allowing use of surplus military rockets for space launches was a bad idea. Of course, DOT had no control over any of the hardware at issue; it all belonged to the Defense Department and the Commercial Space Launch Act stated very clearly that DoD had to consider making such hardware available for legitimate commercial users. Nonetheless, the DOT position, combined with the industry lobbying efforts, more or less indifference in the Pentagon, and no pressing need for more small ELVs, all served to put the brakes on the idea.

And there is sat for some time until the 1998 Commercial Space Act codified at least a degree of opposition to the use of surplus missiles into law. Such conversions were not to be allowed unless the appropriate Congressional committees were notified in advance and the use of the surplus missile resulted in a cost savings to the federal government while maintaining cost, schedule, and performance requirements. Aside from limiting federal procurement activities, this provision effectively ended any possibility of surplus missiles being used to meet non-federal commercial requirements.

Real property, real problem

Rockets were not the only surplus property that proved to offer both real opportunities and grave concerns. The original Commercial Space Launch Act also addressed private use of real property, or in other words, facilities, buildings, and unimproved land. There were established procedures under Title 10 of the US Code for handling use of government real property by private firms, and for unimproved, raw land; they still applied. But for facilities that actually were used in the processing of actual launch hardware, the concept of “Launch Property” was invented, and a whole new set of rules had to be devised to meet the intent of the US Congress. Even before those rules could be defined the Congress passed a revision to the CSLA requiring that government officials “consider” the availability of privately-owned property and services before allowing excess government capacity to be used by space launch companies.

As things turned out, the “consider” requirement turned out to be for all practical purposes an absolute prohibition on such use by the time the Air Force lawyers had decided how to handle it. All a private firm had to do was to state that it would be harmed if excess government real property was made available to commercial launch companies and that shut things right down. The fact that the Congress had said that the property provided by the government could be used if it was superior to commercially available services in terms of cost, scheduling, and performance fell on deaf legal ears.

The reality is the refusal by the federal government to enable full commercial use of excess property amounts to a negative subsidy in international terms.

One excess Air Force/NASA payload processing facility at Cape Canaveral looked interesting to a number of potential users. But a private firm objected, saying they would be harmed if commercial firms got to use the empty building. When asked what would be appropriate future for the facility the president of the private company replied, “I think it should be bulldozed,” and a few years later that is exactly what happened. Similar problems existed at Vandenberg AFB. Some senior Air Force officials even argued that such property should not provided if it harmed private firms that had already obtained similar government property. In other words, the first company in place effectively captured the market. Regardless of the clear legal language in the law, sometimes the law was inconvenient.

Too rich to compete?

The US is unique in refusing to allow excess military property to be used to meet commercial space launch requirements. Other countries, most notably Russia, are eager to allow unneeded military hardware to be used to enhance its international competitiveness. The Dnepr, Shtil, Rockot, and Volna launch vehicles all are examples of surplus missiles turned into commercial boosters. The US seems to think itself rich enough to avoid opportunities of this kind.

But the fact is, internationally, direct and indirect subsidies are the norm in the space launch business. And the reality is the refusal by the federal government to enable full commercial use of excess property amounts to a negative subsidy in international terms.

However, things are not static. Orbital Sciences opposed the use of surplus missiles in and foreign competition the 1990’s but today is the main proponent of surplus Minuteman and Peacekeeper use and has entered into a new agreement to bring foreign-made hardware to the US market. Opportunities can bring changes, and vice versa.


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