New Role for Rockets? : Those Eliminated by START Could Glut Satellite-Launching Market


Some U.S. rocket makers fear that a Bush Administration proposal to use decommissioned nuclear missiles to launch satellites into space could have a devastating impact on their industry.

The issue resurfaced last week after President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which would cut the number of long-range nuclear missiles by a third. Some of the 800 to 1,000 missiles to be eliminated under the treaty could be used for peaceful purposes, including low-cost satellite launches, Administration officials and other proponents of the plan say.

Governments and private corporations that put satellites into space could benefit from lower launch costs, which run into the tens of millions of dollars. Reduced launch costs could also help U.S. satellite makers such as Hughes Aircraft Co., Loral Corp. and Rockwell International Corp. sell more satellites.


But for a U.S. rocket industry already suffering from a paucity of commercial satellite launches, declining Pentagon contracts and competition from abroad, the proposal could be bad news.

“We want to make sure the missiles are not used to hurt the limited market for medium launch vehicles that is served by the Delta, Atlas and Titan rockets,” said Sam Mihara, staff director of the Delta II rocket program at McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Co. in Huntington Beach.

“It would be a major impact on our market because it creates a situation of contractors competing against the government,” Mihara said.

The impact could be strong enough to wipe out the industry, if it isn’t handled properly, he warned. The country’s three major rocket builders--McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics and Martin Marietta--employ about 8,000 workers on rocket programs. And thousands more work for subcontractors.

“There is a small satellite industry and a small rocket industry. The question is, how do you balance the interests of the two,” said John Pike, a space policy expert for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

Hughes Aircraft, one of the nation’s largest builders of satellites, isn’t taking sides on the issue yet. “I’m sure lower launch costs could increase the number of satellites we sell to some extent,” said Emery Wilson, a spokesman for Hughes’ satellite division in El Segundo. But the company has taken no formal position on the proposal.

The debate also pits the interests of a commercial rocket industry locked in a battle with overseas competitors in Europe, China, Japan and the Soviet Union against the interests of American taxpayers.

“I am an advocate of the policy because I think it saves the taxpayer a hell of a lot of money to use surplus assets,” said Joseph Jerger, president of Space Vector Corp., a Chatsworth company that converts Minuteman missile rocket motors for use as small-payload launchers.

Martin Marietta’s Astronautics Group in Denver, which already converts old Titan II missiles for use as satellite launchers, said in a statement that it agreed with the National Space Council’s recommendations.

The company also builds the Titan IV, which carries 39,000-pound payloads and wouldn’t be threatened by the conversion of the Minuteman or Poseidon missiles, which could carry about 1,000 pounds.

Martin Marietta said it could benefit by bidding for any additional work that could be created in converting the missiles to space launchers, which involves removing nuclear warheads and refueling the missiles.

Jack Isabel, a spokesman for General Dynamics Space Systems Division in San Diego, which makes the Atlas rocket, said the company is evaluating the impact of the proposal on the industry.

But he noted that Atlas payloads of 5,200 to 8,000 pounds are higher than those of the nuclear missiles, which would preserve the larger payload market for commercial space companies.

Laura Ayres of Orbital Sciences Corp., a Fairfax, Va.-based maker of small-payload rockets, noted that the costs of converting Titans has been high: about $45 million a missile, or about the same cost as a Delta II launch.

“We consider this policy to be dumping, and we believe only a very small number of companies will benefit from it,” she said. “Another side effect is that the policy will stifle innovation in the rocket-launch industry.”

The National Space Council said last week that the Administration may favor such a policy, though it cautioned that further study is needed to consider the impact on the commercial space sector.

Pentagon officials echoed the comments in testimony before a House subcommittee on Wednesday. The agency is expected to announce results of a feasibility study on the issue in December.

“The major stumbling block in the past was progress on a missile treaty,” said Rep. George E. Brown (D-Colton), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. “Once it is ratified (by the Senate), we can move forward on the issue of what to do with the missiles very quickly. If we destroyed the missiles in their silos, the rocket makers would probably be better off, but that isn’t going to serve everyone’s interests.”

A Bush Administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon is expected to take the industry’s concerns into account.

“We will look carefully at the commercial space-launch market to see if this can be done without damage to the fledgling and fragile industry,” the official said.

That statement gives some comfort to McDonnell Douglas officials. The company could be hurt more than others because the 600- to 1,000-pound payloads of the Minuteman II and III and the Poseidon C-3 and C-4 nuclear missiles are closer to the 4,000-pound payload of Space Systems’ Delta II rockets.

The Delta program, a mainstay of McDonnell Douglas’ space division, employs 1,000 people in Huntington Beach and Cape Canaveral, Fla. Each Delta launch generates about $50 million in revenue for the company.

Besides its U.S. rivals, the company also competes with the European consortium Arianespace and China’s Long March rocket. The Japanese are also expected to soon be competing for a declining number of satellite launches worldwide, and, as a result of START, the Soviets could also soon have hundreds of decommissioned missiles that could be sold on the open market.

Space Systems officials said in March that they needed to win two big contracts worth $1.2 billion in order to sustain the Delta program’s work force through the 1990s. Later this year, the Air Force is expected to select a contractor for 26 launches of navigation satellites.

Motorola Inc. is expected to decide on a rocket maker to carry into orbit its planned 77-satellite Iridium constellation, which would enable Motorola to deliver cellular phone service to remote locations of the world.

Since the Iridium satellites will weigh under 1,000 pounds, the converted nuclear missiles could be used as launchers, industry experts said.

McDonnell Douglas is counting on winning either the Air Force or Iridium contracts to avoid layoffs at its Huntington Beach rocket business. The proposal to convert nuclear missiles to launch vehicles represents yet another threat.

The government, aware of the problems that unloading hundreds of rockets onto the market could cause, put a moratorium on the use of missiles as satellite launchers until a START treaty was signed.

Mihara said the company believes that there are plenty of peaceful uses for the missiles, such as melting them down to recover scrap metal and propellant. The missiles could also be used for flight testing and as targets for missile defense weapons research, he said.

Small Rockets, Big Competition A converted nuclear missile would not be able to haul large satellites into space as most commerical rockets do, but it could carry lighter payloads, such as the 77-satellite Iridium constellation, a planned network of cellular communications satellites that weigh less than 1,000 pounds each. Payloads in Pounds Minuteman: 600 Poseidon: 1,100 Delta II: 4,000 Atlas I: 5,200 Atlas II: 8,000 Titan II: 4,200 Titan III: 10,000 Titan IV: 39,000 ICBM Minuteman and Poseidon missiles from the U.S. nuclear arsenal have a payload capacity of 600 to 1,100 pounds. Delta McDonnell Douglas Space System Co. in Huntington Beach has launched 206 Delta rockets since 1960. The launches cost McDonnell Douglas customers about $50 million each. Atlas Martin Marietta Astronautics Group in Denver is converting 14 Titan II intercontinental ballisic missiles for the Air Force. The cost of conversion is about $45 million each. Titan General Dynamics Space Systems Division in San Diego plans to build 60 Atlas rockets. The company has contracts for 25 commerical and 10 military launches. Source: The companies