The FAA Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) voted last week to recommend that the U.S. government maintain its ban on the use of excess ICBM motors for launching commercial satellites. The recommendation to the FAA is a non-binding one.
Current policy limits use of the motors for military and civilian government launches where better options are unavailable. Orbital ATK, which incorporates the engines into several launch vehicles, has been lobbying Congress to lift the restriction on commercial flights in order to capture a larger share of the market for small and medium payloads.
In supporting the current policy, COMSTAC found that it has spurred billions of dollars in investment in new launch systems. Lifting the ban would undercut companies that are developing new boosters to serve the booming small satellite industry, the committee concluded.
COMSTAC member Charles Precourt, Orbital ATK’s vice president and general manager of propulsion systems, said Orbital ATK has lost business over the past decade due to the restriction. Launches have gone to India, which operates its low-cost PSLV booster, and to Russia, whose Rockot and Dnepr launch vehicles are converted Soviet-era ICBMs. (Dnepr is a joint program with Ukraine that launches from Russia.)
Precourt argued there were a number of measures that could be undertaken to mitigate the impact of lifting the restriction on the launch market. He sought to have a future meeting where those measures could be discussed in detail.
COMSTAC members were not persuaded by Precourt’s arguments. They rejected a suggestion that a vote be postponed until the committee’s next full meeting in October. Congress is taking up the issue now, they said; in six months, it would be too late to influence debate on the issue.
The House Science Committee recently had a hearing on the matter. However, the members did not reach a consensus on whether the ban should be lifted.
A review by Parabolic Arc last year found there are more than 20 companies worldwide that are developing launch vehicles for the small and medium-satellite market.
Orbital ATK has argued that the motors would be used in launch vehicles that have greater payload capacity than most of the boosters under development. However, opponents of lifting the restriction said that Orbital ATK would bundle small satellites on their launch vehicles, thus cutting into the market that new entrants were targeting.
Competition from India’s reliable PSLV launcher has become a major political issue. American small satellite makers are pushing to lift a ban on flying aboard the low-cost booster. They say U.S. launch providers are struggling to keep up with demand for launching small payloads. Meanwhile, new entrants have not yet brought their boosters to market.
The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office has issued waivers for a limited number of U.S. satellites for launch aboard PSLV boosters as secondary payloads. The office is studying whether to lift the ban on Indian launches.
FAA is supporting a continuation of the ban based on a recommendation by COMSTAC. The agency argues that the Indian government subsides the launches, thus creating unfair competition for U.S. industry.
Meanwhile, Russia is phasing out use of Rockot and Dnepr launchers as it moves to new Soyuz-2.1v and Angara boosters. Launches of the converted ICBMs are infrequent and will eventually end all together. However, the introduction of the Soyuz-2.1v and Angara launchers has proceeded at a slow pace.