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§ 3.3.4 Using Cold War Nuclear Missiles to Launch Peacetime Payloads

The Cold War came to an end in the 1980s, and it would be good to make sure it does not come back, at least not with all the ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles) currently in launch silos.

The Russians are in dire need of foreign cash and exports.

Two things they can sell:

  1. Launch of ICBMs from silos with the warheads removed, instead putting payloads into orbit; or
  2. The rockets and/or engines from some of those ICBMs, to be launched elsewhere.

A typical Russian or American ICBM has substantial orbit launch capability. ICBMs reach about 98% of orbit velocity, and their wartime payloads are heavy. Many have multiple warheads ("RVs") on them (called "MIRVs" -- Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles) whereby the ICBM first reaches near-orbit velocities and then a vehicle (called the "bus") carrying all the RVs, maneuvers around to put each RV onto its own precise target trajectory, releasing the RVs one by one.

The total mass of the bus, its fuel, and the RVs is quite substantial.

I ran this past some Arms Control and Disarmament Agency negotiators, but their eventual response was that they didn't want to add any complications to the disarmament process and wanted as many nuclear missiles turned off as possible in the shortest amount of time. I countered that simple perspective with proper national public relations campaigns, e.g., using ICBMs to launch material as part of a PERMANENT program, a co-operative application that could speed up deep cuts in ICBMs due to broader based public support, even among the resistant conservatives on both sides who respond to nationalistic appeals like the space program. Also, colonies in space change some fundamental psychological paradigms on fighting over a limited Earth.

It's fairly easy to imagine simply taking off the warheads and putting on useful payload, then launching from the missile silo. However, in the USA at least, there are range safety considerations. The engines of some of them could be taken off and moved to a safe launch site elsewhere in the world, or perhaps the entire rocket could be moved, but that may be prevented by legislation in order to prevent the government from undercutting support for private launchers under development. At the very least, selling the engines to the highest private bidders has not happened yet.

Nonetheless, something can be said for converting our military industries into space development industries, getting rid of the missiles, and putting those personnel back to work on greater things, especially in Russia where valuable rocket scientists are unemployed or underemployed (e.g., selling trinkets on the streets).

The main objection to this scenario is that it could undercut support for developing new launch vehicles elsewhere in the world if the ICBM launch services were sold at under market price.

In any case, it's worth discussion and serious consideration.

PostScript

Since the writing of the above about 10 years ago, there have been quite a few analyses of using both Russian and US missiles for peaceful government and commercial launches, and assessing the potential costs and benefits to the commercial launcher market (e.g., a regulated pricing system, including profit sharing with established launch businesses and their infrastructure suppliers).

Two good paper references which in turn provide further references: Mike Trial and Matthew A. Bille.

The Russian Zenit rockets use ICBM missile parts.



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