Novel question: minuteman III as a launch vehicle


I’m working on a novel. I want my characters to try and launch a communication satellite. Could a Minuteman III be modified to put something in even a low orbit? If not a minuteman, how about any other ICBM that was used that I could have them “find” abandoned and forgotten.



I think you’d need another staged rocket up there on the pointy end in lieu of the warheads. My guess is that ICBMs, as manufactured, are inherently sub-orbital. Even if you chop out the warheads and warhead guidance you will not have reduced launch weight significantly.

Most of a long range or orbital rocket’s weight at lift-off is fuel. But if you could put another stage on maybe you could go orbital.

Any ICBM has very high maintenance needs, nothing abandoned and forgotten would be flyable.


Yes, I believe it could be. The boosters for the space program were simply missles, but rockets sounds better to the general public. All depending on the weight of your payload, a Minuteman III could do the job. Also consider the Ajax or Nike missles, perhaps? Saturn IV would be overkill, I wager, unless your payload is seriously hefty. - Jinx

The Russian START and Rokot are both decomissioned ICBMs converted into orbital launchers. I’m not sure how the Minuteman compares to these, however.

Mariner 2 was launched on an Atlas booster, which (according to “Exploring the Solar System” by Nicholas Booth) was originally developed for intercontinental ballistic use. Mariner 2 went to Venus, BTW, so low orbit should be a snap

I seem to recall that rockets are fuelled immediately before launch. Perhaps someone can provide info on rocket thrust and the weights of MIRV warheads vs. satellites.

Before you choose your launch vehicle, you need to ask the following questions:

  1. What orbit is this satellite going into? Is it meant to provide round-the-clock comms to your characters? For how many years? If it’s going to be a geosynchronous orbit (hovers over one point of the globe), that’s a very high orbit. That’s really the only orbit that makes sense for a real-time communications relay satellite. Also, look up where those satellites are “parked”–typically, they’re placed into an orbit on the equator, and cover 77 degrees of latitude or so, and about the same to the left and right in longitude. A comsat parked around 0’0" on earth can communicate with Europe and the east coast of the USA, making those orbital “slots” precious. Is there any chance that the location they want to park their satellite already has one there? Can they check for satellites in the way before they launch?

  2. How long has the missile they “find” been abandoned? If it’s more than 50 years, then it’s not a Minuteman, because solid rocket fuel is a polymer that–even with the best maintenance and environmental controls–probably won’t last more than 40 years (I say probably because we’re just now getting to 50-year-old solid rocket stages and nobody knows how long the newest fuels can last). If it’s a liquid-fuel ICBM, then they need to find and safely handle the fueling of the empty ICBM. Most ICBM handling operations require a pretty skilled crew. One possible loophole would be to use the START ICBM (solid fuel), based on the Russian Topol. Look it up on Google. It’s road-mobile, so if you stipulate a collapse of the Russian government, your characters could conceivably find one in a cave halfway between the Baikonur Cosmodrome (Kazakhstan) and the Middle East. Then you’d have a rocket and launcher that had been “stockpiled” in a cave for future use. The cave would have to be naturally dry and of uniform temperature, though–remember, you’re keeping a polymer fuel from cracking.

  3. Are they making the satellite, or stealing it, or finding it? It takes a whole hell of a lot of expertise to build a satellite. It is not easy. Even if you have ten characters with engineering degrees who stumble into a NASA facility, it’s going to take years of effort and a clean room to build a satellite that’s going to do what it’s supposed to. Without a ground tracking site, they need to get the onboard firmware right the first time – you can’t just reissue a patch! The mass of the satellite, and the orbit you’re sending it to, determines how much energy your SLV (space launch vehicle) needs to provide.

  4. How are they going to program the launch vehicle’s guidance system? Rockets are not just “point and shoot”. One of your characters is going to need a year of orbital mechanics and a year or two experience doing this for a living… or they’re going to have to put the satellite on top and press ‘launch’ and hope that it goes to the right place.

It’s not brain surgery, but it is rocket science. Luckily, I’m a rocket scientist.

Shoot, Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom went suborbital on Redstone IRBMs which were direct descendants of the V2. John Glenn and all of the other orbital Mercury flights were done with modified Atlas ICBMs. The Gemini program was based on the Titan II ICBM. The one thing they had in common was that they were liquid-fueled.

Minuteman III is a solid-propellant missile which very well might have a significantly better unmaintained shelf life, but it probably pulls dozens of Gs at launch. I think it’s highly unlikely a human could survive a ride on one.

Jurph - I agree with you on 1,2, and 4, but building a satellite isn’t as hard as you might think. Some amateur ham radio sats are built for around the same price as a luxury car. I remember seeing a program (about one of the satellites in the article I linked to, I think) - a simple measuring tape can perform effectively as an antenna, in a very small space.

Which isn’t to say it’s a weekend project, but still.

Nanoda - I agree that building the satellite is not a “weekend project”, nor is it the 13th labor of Hercules–I overstated the difficulty because I’m currently employed trying to build a weather satellite. Realize that the LtCol who led the project team probably has some satellite experience, though, and that it did cost them $50k in (probably) commercial parts. I only wanted to make Mxylpic aware of the other challenges inherent in the project.

Sofa King, you’re absolutely right: the best way to put a person in orbit is with liquid fuel. The efficiency (specific impulse) of an oxygen-hydrogen engine is unparallelled, and the G’s are moderate. The downside is the complexity of the engine, the multiple failure points, and the volume that hydrogen takes up, even when liquified. If you’re going with LH+LOX, you need cryogenic storage, as well. You wouldn’t want to put a person in orbit with a solid-fuel rocket, but if your payload could survive it, a solid is a good, cheap, low-maintenance way to put an inanimate payload in orbit.

How much wattage does it take to penetrate the atmosphere with enough clarity to carry a voice? With a morse code ping? I suppose you’d need to assume a geostationary orbit.

On the contrary, ICBMs as manufactured are inherently orbital. Most of the trajectory of an ICBM is above the atmosphere, and the range is long enough that it’s definitely an ellipse, not a parabola. The biggest problem is that any closed orbit which intersects the surface of the Earth once (at the launch point) is going to intersect the surface of the Earth again, and soon (after less than one complete orbit). If you want something to go up and stay up, then you need to rocket burns (which may or may not mean two stages): First, you fire the rocket once at launch, to put it into a ballistic-missile type orbit that’ll intersect the Earth. Then, when it’s as high as you want it, you need to fire the rocket again, to change it from a high orbit that’s going to get lower into a high orbit that’s going to stay high.

And Jurph, I’ll defer to your expertise on the question of how hard it is to actually get things to work. But the calculations to find the orbits and changes of orbits are very straightforward, and could in principle be done in a few hours with pencil and paper using no more than a high school education (I say “in principle”, because most high schoolers don’t particularly understand what they’re taught, but they’re given all the tools they need).

By the way, Nanoda, my university is involved in the construction of one of those cubesats. The price figure of a few tens of thousands of dollars is in principle accurate, but no cubesat has yet been launched. They’re a secondary or tertiary payload, at the mercy of the whims of the primary payload launcher, and the Russian company which was contracted to provide launch services has proven to be rather unreliable.

Chronos - Yeah, the people making those kinda have to beg a bit. Increasing your potential energy isn’t cheap (windfall ICBMs not withstanding…)

Jurph I see! Well… since I think it’s so easy, feel free to ask for help anytime. :smiley: