COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The US government should allow aerospace companies to buy rocket motors from excess intercontinental ballistic missiles for commercial space launch, the chief of US Air Force Space Command said today — but the price must be right.

The Air Force is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain about 800 decommissioned ICBM motors currently sitting in storage, Gen. John Hyten said Thursday during a media briefing at the Space Foundation’s annual National Space Symposium. But the Air Force can’t maintain these systems forever, Hyten said. At some point, they will become unusable and must be destroyed.

"From a taxpayer perspective, wouldn't it be better to get some value out of that rather than just destroy them?" Hyten said.

But the solution is not quite so simple. The US must sustain a viable commercial sector for small payload launch long into the future, a market that could face destruction if it is flooded with government assets.

Orbital ATK, maker of the Minotaur family of launch vehicles that already use excess ICBM motors for Department of Defense space launch missions, is lobbying hard to get the US government to release those assets to the commercial marketplace. But newer companies that have invested significant money to build their own vehicles to launch small commercial payloads are pushing back, arguing the move would give an unfair advantage to Orbital ATK and kill innovation.

Though the Air Force is not the decision maker in this case — the final call lies with national policy makers — Hyten said he believes that selling the ICBM motors to industry for a competitive price could be the solution.

"If we just make those available, not for free, but available as part of that small business at a right number, I think there's a sweet spot somewhere that we can find in order to do that," Hyten said.

Giving the ICBMs away for free gives the buyer an unfair competitive advantage over companies that have invested in their own small payload launch vehicles, Hyten stressed. But "there has to be some way to transfer those at some cost in order to have a level playing field."

However, he cautioned that "we cannot destroy the small launch business."

"Whatever we do the long term that has to be there, so that may put us in a bind with what we do with the ICBMs," Hyten said. "If that's the case, that's the case."


Twitter: @laraseligman

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