Missiles to Minotaurs: Orbital ATK seeking to use former ICBM parts
For some time now, U.S. elected officials have been railing against the use of Russian-built RD-180 rocket engines on Department of Defense (DoD) missions, wanting instead to have American launch service providers use domestically-built propulsion. However, in an ironic twist, an old U.S. policy bans the use of excess motors from old U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) for use in commercial launches, while Russia utilizes their surplus ICBM motors commercially, even launching U.S. payloads.
One company, Orbital ATK, has a potential solution: change the space policy to allow commercial launch companies to purchase these American-built ICBM solid rocket motors and integrate them into a commercial space launch vehicle, with the caveat that the use of the motors would continue to require approval from the secretary of defense.
“We are the only company in the United States that currently has an operating vehicle in this payload range,” said Mark Pieczynski, vice president of business development for Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group. “We know what it takes to compete in this commercial global market, and we know we don’t stand a chance against these launch vehicles overseas that use their country’s excess assets and other government subsidies.”
While Russia allows the use of excess assets for commercial and government use, U.S. space policy allows for the use of these excess ICBM assets only in government and civil payloads, and it prohibits their use in commercial launches so as to not impede on the commercial sector. That policy was set 20 years ago, and there are still no competitors who can go up against Russian vehicles.
According to Orbital ATK, this payload class is in the 1,100 to 4,409-pound (500 to 2000-kilogram) orbit range. Their Minotaur IV vehicle, which currently launches DoD and civil (NASA) missions, uses the first three stages of the excess Peacekeeper motors, combined with commercial upper stages, avionics, integration, a payload adaptor, faring, and ground launch operations.
Orbital ATK’s Minotaur family of rockets include Minotaur I, II, III, IV, and V. Out of 25 launches, these rockets have not seen a single failure. The class of payloads Minotaur IV lofts is comparable to those of the Russian Dnepr rocket.
“Our commercial business case closes with just one or two launches per year using these motors,” said Pieczynski. “Since the early 2000s, Orbital, now Orbital ATK, has been using these motors to form the first three stages of a Minotaur launch vehicle. Our dilemma is that we have a very reliable vehicle that can only be used for DoD launches; meanwhile, we stand by and watch commercial satellite companies take their payloads overseas to be launched on government-subsidized rockets due to a cost point we cannot compete against commercially – it is frustrating.”
In an interesting turn of events, commercial aerospace companies, who once fought to open the launch service provider market to others, appear to be now opposing this latest effort to commercialize space assets.
According to a report appearing on BloombergView, Congress has banned the use of decommissioned ICBM components on national security grounds.
Similar national security concerns have been raised about the RD-180 rocket engine. Ever since the United States’s former Cold War rival carried out military actions in Ukraine in 2014, loud calls have been made to cease the import of these engines.
In the case of these excess Peacekeeper and Minuteman motors, it would seem that Congress would have a plausible way to not only alleviate some of those concerns, but also, as BloomBergView put it, give taxpayers some return on the billions of dollars the Pentagon has already spent in storing them and save the cost of destroying them.
“Currently, the Air Force maintains around a thousand excess ICBMs, which are stored in bunkers at two military bases in the United States,” Pieczynski said. “We and other companies would like to purchase those at a fair market price and bolster the U.S. market.”
Small commercial space companies have proposed rockets designed to launch very small payloads in the 220 to 500-pound (100 to 250-kilogram) range. Their business plan with their small rockets is to bundle and launch very small satellites that utilize nanotechnology. These companies fear this change in policy could result in competition with their emerging market.
“To be honest, we were a little surprised by the commercial companies’ reactions, given Orbital is the first company to privately develop and launch a commercially-developed rocket,” Pieczynski told SpaceFlight Insider. “We do understand the concerns of the small developing launchers; however, we are not even in the same payload class.”
In the small-satellite market, the cost of launch is often more than the cost to build the payload. When a small satellite becomes a secondary payload on a large rocket, they are at the mercy of the primary payload when it comes to schedule and range, often waiting years for a launch opportunity.
“Our commercial market niche is to offer these larger-class small satellite providers a dedicated vehicle, so they can control the schedule and launch from the range that best suits the orbit and mission; we offer that with our Minotaur IV-class vehicle,” said Pieczynski.
The Minotaur IV vehicle is launched from all four of the U.S. ranges including Kodiak, Alaska; Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California; NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station located in Florida.
A decision as to whether or not the U.S. changes this space policy and allows these excess motors to be re-purposed is currently being discussed among lawmakers, as a hearing was held in the U.S. House of Representatives last week on this topic.
“If we do nothing, we will continue to send these payloads and launch operations overseas to the workforce in Russia rather than keeping them here in America to further bolster our own space launch industry, launch facilities, and workforce,” said Pieczynski.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.