Martin Marietta Corporation artist's concept: rocket-propelled missile accelerating toward collision in outer space w. its target, nuclear-tipped ICBM. Time/Life/Getty 1985.
Ever wondered what happens to decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles? According to this June 28 report at The Space Review, some of them enter a twilight world of congressional red tape, sometimes for decades, where it is decided whether or not rockets and other ICBM parts can be broken down for the purposes of the space program. This is decades-old news, except for long-term legal implications that are now blossoming. Like much of where space exploration is headed, this is a bizarre story of the no man's land between the world of public and private property, public and private research, public and private intelligence. Who governs the area where the two spheres overlap?
Another discussion on ICBM conversion is at Space Today Online here; and one at Spaceflight Now is here. A 2003 paper from the Los Angeles Responsive Space Conference sees ICBM conversion as a low cost option in achieving spacelift, although pursuing this option is overshadowed by murky competitions for company contracts. A 2003 article in Acta Astronautica (Volume 52, Issues 2-6, January-March 2003, pages 327-335) describes Russian efforts to use decommissioned weapons in "mission scenarios to Mars and its moons." The Russians have been recycling weapons into their space program since the 1950s.
When it comes to missile conversions, it seems that the competitive edge between Russian and American space programs rests on the speed of transition from one sphere of governance and the economy to another. How odd that this is the same connundrum that has plagued the American economy of late, where the invasion of Iraq under Bush basically constituted the transfer of a huge amount of public monies into private hands through weapons contracts. Of course, the Obama bailouts constituted exactly the same phenomenon, in the name of saving the economy. Who gains power, who loses it, in the massive shifts of funds and tech from public to private worlds? The answer depends on which political camp you consult.
An April 2009 report from The Space Review (originally published in Spaceflight in November 2005) observes that that distinction between science and defense is a grey one as far as transfers of intelligence and security-related tech are concerned:
"One of the many ironies of Cold War history is that today far more is known about Soviet and even contemporary Russian signals intelligence satellites than is known about American Cold War systems that ceased operating decades ago. In recent years the NRO has admitted that it operated a multitude of systems for gathering up the elusive electronic whispers of Soviet radars during the Cold War, but American officials still remain reluctant to reveal what these satellites looked like or were capable of doing."The shift from public to private is not political: it is occurring regardless of which political camp is in power. It is an underlying and ongoing process characteristic of our times. The Cold War, with its Spy who Came in from the Cold ethos, initiated the breakdown between public and private. With all the focus on the internet and its erasure of our private existence, who knew that the coup de grâce, the really big institutional changes, would come from a shattered economy combined with associated peaceful movements for disarmament and low cost space exploration?