presses U.S. lawmakers to end ban on retired missiles
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[April 08, 2016]
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - Orbital
ATK is pressing U.S. lawmakers to end a 20-year ban on using
decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) for launching
commercial satellites and the effort has raised concern among companies
that have invested millions of dollars in potential rival rockets.
Orbital Vice President Barron Beneski said in an interview on
Friday that the company was pushing Washington to get the ban lifted
as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that sets defense
policy for fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1.
The missiles were idled by nuclear disarmament treaties between the
United States and Russia in the 1990s.
Virgin Galactic and other space startups said in interviews last
week they worry that lifting the ban would give Orbital an unfair
competitive advantage if it was allowed to use surplus government
rocket motors in its commercial launch vehicles.
The issue could affect hundreds of millions of dollars in potential
rocket launch orders in coming years.
Orbital’s initiative dovetails with an Air Force plan to cut the
amount of money it spends on missile storage and support services to
$6.5 million in fiscal year 2017 from $17 million this year.
The Air Force had no immediate comment on the budget cut proposal
and its intentions for the stockpiled missiles.
U.S. policy allows the missile rocket motors to be used to launch
military payloads, a service that Orbital has already been providing
under contract with the Air Force. But the decommissioned missiles
cannot currently be used as launch vehicles to fly commercial
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 LauncherOne, which is being developed by Richard
Branson’s California-based Virgin Galactic.
"It’s not a matter of us taking business away from them. It’s a
matter of us filling a void in the Minotaur 4 market and competing
it internationally,” Orbital's vice president of business
development Mark Pieczynski said.
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Beneski said the company would welcome continued Department of
Defense review “to make sure we’re not buying assets and then
cannibalizing the commercial market.”
They said Orbital was not looking for an exclusive deal, and would
pay a "fair market rate" for the retired missiles.
Virgin Galactic Vice President Richard DalBello said on Friday that
his company did not expect a large commercial market in the class of
the Minotaur. “What they will be doing is selling rides to smaller
commercial payloads, and aggregating them, so they will be directly
competing with us,” he said.
Virgin is among a handful of startups that include Texas-based
Firefly Space Systems and Rocket Lab of Los Angeles and New Zealand,
which have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing
rockets (lower case) to carry small satellites into orbit.
“It’s a dangerous precedent when the government tries to inject
itself in the commercial marketplace. It can be disruptive, and not
for the right reasons,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial
Spaceflight Federation, a Washington DC-based trade organization,
said in an interview on Thursday.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; editing by Andrea Shalal and Joe White)
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