Ex-Cold War Missile May Boost University-Built Satellites
The Peacekeeper missile has played a key role within the U.S. strategic modernization program. With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has agreed to eliminate the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) as part of the strategic arms reduction treaties with Russia. The rocket may have a second life - hurling U.S. university payloads into Earth orbit.
Credit: U.S. Air Force.

BIG SKY, Montana - University-built space payloads may get a lift from deactivated intercontinental ballistic missiles that are now on a trajectory for the scrap heap.

The idea is to utilize the Peacekeeper missile, phased out under mutual nuclear arms reduction agreements inked between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The missile's Cold War mission came to an end earlier this week, after serving 19 years as a key part of U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy. The mothballing of the Peacekeeper is part of a reduction in U.S. missile forces from 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200. Russia's Putin agreed to pursue a similar course of action.

The Peacekeeper began its development back in 1979, and some nine years later became fully operational. According to the U.S. Air Force, each Peacekeeper was built at a cost of about $70 million. The deactivation is estimated to save the Air Force more than $600 million through 2010.

Peacekeeper was designed to carry up to 10 independently targeted warheads. But now they could be tipped with student-built research gear.

Lawmaker support

Rather than mothballing and ultimately destroying dozens of the Peacekeeper missiles, Republican Congressman Dennis Rehberg of Montana is championing steps to use the weapons to lob university payloads into orbit.

Rehberg advanced the idea during the Inland Northwest Space Alliance (INSA) Space Policy Institute meeting, held here September 16-18 that involved NASA officials, academia and industry experts.

The Missoula-based INSA is a private group created by the University of Montana in 2003. The group is focused on broadening space-related research and commercial applications, particularly in the inland northwest.

"Wouldn't it be better to take the same amount of money and those missiles to provide the opportunity for the university system to shoot them up into space," Rehberg said, armed not with warheads but student experiments. "Wouldn't that make a lot more sense?"

Business sense - Russian style

Rehberg said that there's no reason for the U.S. government or the Department of Defense to destroy the rockets - typically done by junking them up on the ground.

"Because, ultimately, they're going to be destroyed under the non-proliferation treaties that we've signed," Rehberg told SPACE.com. "We have the opportunity to do this as efficiently and effectively as possible. Don't spend the money on destruction of the missiles. Let's use them to get some research done and provide an opportunity for the university system," he explained.

The lawmaker serves on the Energy and Water Development, Military Quality of Life, and Foreign Operations Appropriation Subcommittees. Rehberg said that he is teaming with fellow congressmen, Chet Edwards of Texas and Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, to delve into the Peacekeeper use within the arena of non-proliferation.

The idea of using surplus Cold War weaponry to hurl student satellites into orbit is not new. Just ask the Russians. U.S. university payloads, among other groups, have found home on the Dnepr booster under contract with ISC Kosmotras, a Russian and Ukrainian rocket-for-hire company.

Kosmotras was founded in 1997, converting retired R 36-M ballistic missiles into the silo-launched Dnepr space booster. The R 36-M is known to the West by its NATO classification -- the SS-18 missile.

Enter Minotaur IV

Scott Schoneman, manager of mission development for Orbital Sciences Corp. in Chandler, Arizona, detailed the firm's focus on the Peacekeeper as a new addition to the U.S. Air Force's Orbital/Suborbital Program (OSP). He manages the company's Orbital/Suborbital Program within the Launch Systems Group.

Orbital Sciences, headquartered in Dulles, Virginia, has already developed the four-stage Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) Minotaur rocket using a combination of U.S. government-supplied Minuteman II motors and Orbital space launch technologies.

A new addition to Orbital's line of space launch vehicles is the OSP-2 Minotaur IV Space Launch Vehicle. That booster melds elements of government-furnished and decommissioned Peacekeeper boosters with technologies from the group's Pegasus, Taurus, and OSP Minotaur line of launch vehicles.

The Minotaur IV consists of three Peacekeeper solid rocket stages, a commercial Orion 38 fourth stage motor and subsystems derived from Orbital's already established space launch boosters. Under a 10-year contract with the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Orbital is developing and would operate the Minotaur IV vehicle to launch U.S. government-funded satellites into low-Earth orbit.

Schoneman said that the Peacekeeper-based Minotaur IV would be capable of being launched from multiple spaceports: California, Florida, Alaska, and from Virginia-situated Wallops Island.

Minotaur IV would be able to loft payloads on the cheap, Schoneman said, making it the lowest costing ride into low Earth orbit of "any existing, real, small launch vehicle."

Concerning the rocket's use to haul student payloads - given a backlog of university payloads ready for rides -- Schoneman advised that the launcher would enable universities to, hopefully, acquire good science..."but at least get them flown and not have hangar queens sitting around."

Educational benefits

"Using the Minotaur IV to launch a number of university payloads is an excellent use of decommissioned Government assets, allowing us to provide a low cost, reliable launch that will also provide great educational benefits to the students involved," Schoneman added.

When will the Minotaur IV be ready for action?

Orbital is on contract to provide a Minotaur IV launch, Schoneman said, to loft the first Space Based Space Surveillance satellite for the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Center. But due to funding constraints of the overall spacecraft development, the launch
has been pushed beyond the original 2007 launch date, he said.

"However, we are about to hold the Preliminary Design Review for the Minotaur IV
configuration," Schoneman told SPACE.com. "Given the advanced state of development, along with the proven heritage and maturity of the constituent elements of the launch vehicle, we could realistically be capable of launching within 18 months of receiving funding of an additional mission."

Hands-on experience

The INSA meeting showcased a growing and sophisticated array of university small satellites. But for years, finding affordable rides into Earth orbit for the home-grown satellites has been elusive.

Students as the "feedstock of the future" was a recurring theme during the INSA confab.

Moreover, student access to space is a critical piece to training the next generation workforce, emphasized David Klumpar, Research Professor and Director of the Space Science and Engineering Laboratory at Montana State University in Bozeman.

"It's important to have folks coming out of our colleges and universities that have direct, hands-on experience," Klumpar told SPACE.com. "It isn't good enough to do design studies that don't result in hardware," he said.

Klumpar said something must be done to deal with the retiring aerospace community that the nation now faces. Having students design, build, and then fly their hardware is vital to help counter this issue, because "it's where the rubber meets the road," he added.

That view is backed by INSA CEO and founder George Bailey. He senses that student access to space is part of a much larger issue of the nation's wellbeing.

"Student-led payloads have stalled...and it's putting our country at a national security risk. Getting student payloads back in space is a way to develop the next generation of space scientists and aerospace engineers," Bailey concluded.