- - Tuesday, August 29, 2017


The U.S. government has a problem. It has stockpiled too many rocket motors. A yard sale is out; nobody has a yard big enough. Besides, the Commercial Space Act of 1998 prohibits the use of these motors, built to power intercontinental ballistic missiles, to launch commercial spacecraft. The government doesn’t want to “discourage innovation in the U.S. space launch industry.”

Nevertheless, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act requires the Government Accounting Office to calculate how much these motors are worth to enable the government to put a price sticker on them. These rocket motors could be used to lift communications and earth observation satellites into orbit for peaceful purposes. Congress has yet to decide whether the prohibition of such sales should be lifted. We sell weapons to shady characters all over the world, so why not?

These motors were designed for heavy lifting, such as sending Minuteman II and Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles on their way with warheads for a deserving enemy. There’s no shortage of deserving enemies — “we’re looking at you, fat boy” — but there’s no appropriate occasion. Hence the overstocked inventory.

During the Obama era, the Department of Defense wanted to join the green revolution and would no doubt have preferred battery-powered motors to deliver the nuclear weapons, but there wasn’t room on board for all the AAA batteries needed to send the missiles on their way. Batteries have limitations. The popular Chevy Volt electric vehicle, for example, can travel only about 60 miles on a charge, and ICBMs must travel thousands of miles to do their duty. This is beyond the length of an industrial-strength extension cord.

For now, the U.S. Air Force has the job of keeping 720 surplus ICBM engines ready to roar at a cost of $17 million annually. These mega-machines can’t simply sit on a shelf to collect dust. The Air Force must “store the motors in bunkers, maintain facilities and equipment, conduct research to ensure the motors are aging safely,” according to the GAO.

If Congress decides to make these spare motors available to all comers, the Pentagon must be alert for evil-doers who would use the motors for sinister purposes. They must keep a particularly sharp eye out for a pudgy customer with a funny accent and a weird haircut. At a GAO suggested retail price of $3.96 million for the Minuteman II and estimated $8.36 million for the motors for a Peacekeeper, that certain crazy fat kid would have to send a considerable number of his constituents back to the coal mines to earn the money to pay for them.

There was a time when space was out of reach of private citizens. But those days are over, and competition is driving down costs (as it always does). Tesla founder Elon Musk is on the brink of perfecting the art of landing rocket stages on floating barges for reuse, and Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is developing rockets that can circle back to their launch pad. (These missiles, when available, may not be eligible for Amazon Prime.) With entrepreneurs currently funding more than 200 private space ventures, the market for aging rocket engines is in danger of stalling.

If Congress doesn’t act soon to authorize the sale of the surplus motors, the Pentagon might be forced to let them go later for pennies on the dollar or be stuck with a bunch of mega-machines that no one wants. It would be a crying shame to have to call 1-800-GOT-JUNK.

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