If Congress approves, obsolete nuclear missiles may be carrying Montana State University satellites into space in less than two years.
Signed into extinction by President George W. Bush, the last of 50 Peacekeeper missiles formerly stockpiled in Wyoming was deactivated in September, and is now gathering dust with its bedfellows at Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah.
But plans are now on Missoula drawing boards that would resurrect the Peacekeepers for a different kind of mission. The Inland Northwest Space Alliance (INSA), a private group organized by the University of Montana in 2003, is working with the U.S. Air Force to put the defunct missiles to work launching university-built satellites into space.
“The whole idea is to take these missiles, take the warheads off, and put satellites on instead,” says Ned Penley, a NASA employee working with INSA. “The beauty of this is that INSA could take instruments of war and turn them into instruments of education.”
A seven-story Peacekeeper missile is designed to carry a payload of 10 nuclear warheads. That’s enough room for hundreds of wine-bottle-size “CubeSats,” each containing a student-designed experiment.
“The missile would shoot into space and eject the satellites like a jack-in-the-box,” Penley says.
The satellites would stay in orbit anywhere from one to 25 years, sending back data to Montana universities, before eventually falling back into the atmosphere and burning up.
Rep. Dennis Rehberg expressed enthusiasm for the idea at an INSA meeting in Big Sky in September. His press secretary, Tom Schultz, says Rehberg has been speaking to Gen. Lance W. Lord, commander of the Air Force Space Command, about the initiative.
INSA’s founder and president, George Bailey, says there’s “definite interest” from Congress. He says the military is supportive of the program’s major goal—to bring university students back into the aerospace fold.
America’s current dearth of aerospace engineers, Penley says, threatens the health of the nation.
“Humankind is wired for exploration,” Penley says. “Every major empire in the world, when they stopped exploring, they cratered.”