I’m a big fan of sci-fi planetary invasions, whether they’re in Star Wars, Halo, or Warhammer 40,000, so when I heard the US Air Force wants to invest $48 million in researching reusable rocket technology that could help shoot cargo or special operations, troops, into space and then bring them down to an austere base or combat zone anywhere on the planet in under an hour, my ears perked up.
At the very least, if everything goes well, and there are a lot of ifs, such capacity could be available in the next few decades. The Air Force requested $48 million in its budget proposal for the fiscal year 2022. The Air Force claims it wants to “leverage a commercial rocket to deliver [Air Force] goods anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity,” according to the request titled “Rocket freight.”
The branch hopes that the capability will provide US Transportation Command with a low-cost, quick alternative to sealift or airlift, as well as allowing Air Force Special Operations Command to “perform current rapid-response missions at a lower cost, and meet a one-hour response requirement,” which is lightning fast when compared to a 10-plus hour flight across an ocean in a C-17 Globemaster III transport plane.
While the Air Force did not specify which commercial rocket it plans to strap its cargo to, Ars Technica pointed out that only one fits the bill: SpaceX’s Starship rocket. According to SpaceX’s website, Starship is a fully reusable heavy launch rocket designed to transport crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars, and beyond. It will be the world’s “most powerful launch vehicle ever constructed,” according to the corporation.
But hold off on putting on your Halo Orbital Drop Shock Trooper outfit. The Air Force made it plain in its budget justification that it has no plans to invest in Starship development. Instead, the money will be used to help the Air Force figure out if and how the rocket may be used for military purposes. For example, the money would go toward helping researchers devise ways for Air Force loadmasters to load or unload a rocket, launch one quickly from “strange locales,” figure out where it could land and detect opponents, and even see whether the rocket could airdrop its payload after reentry.
The Air Force has already spent $9.7 million on Starship performance and design data this fiscal year, and it wants to keep doing so as SpaceX continues to test the rocket. The Air Force plans to test the rocket more thoroughly in the fiscal year 2022, including a wind tunnel test to see if airdrops from the rocket are conceivable.
If Congress accepts the cash, Starship works out, and the Air Force figures out how to use it for military purposes, some truly amazing sci-fi situations could emerge.
“It’s frickin’ great when you can launch an austere airbase in a space capsule!” During a briefing on the service’s new Advanced Battle Management System in November, Will Roper, the former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, told reporters.
“Just having it come down halfway around the world with everything you need to be able to maintain and operate a small fleet of airplanes—refuel it, rearm it, and get it back in the fight,” Roper continued.
Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, the commander of the United States Transportation Command, believes that a drop platform like this might revolutionize military logistics.
In October, he stated, “Imagine moving 80 short tonnes, the equivalent of a C-17 payload, anywhere on the globe in less than an hour.” “We should push ourselves to think differently about how we will project the force in the future, including how rocket cargo could play a role.”
Lyons’ remarks come only weeks after he announced at a National Defense Transportation Association event that the Pentagon had inked a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with SpaceX to study prospective space-based transport routes.
“The United States Transportation Command has identified that commercial, point-to-point space transportation may provide a unique capability, enabling the command to better support moving equipment and eventually people quickly around the globe to meet our national objectives, global emergencies, and natural disasters,” according to the United States Transportation Command. In a statement, Air Force Lt. Col. Nirav Lad, the command’s senior investigator for space transportation CRADAs, said.
The War Zone claimed that if the under-an-hour capability offered by rocket delivery is worth the extra expense is an outstanding topic. According to The War Zone, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk expects that future Starship launches will cost as little as $2 million each, which is nearly four times the cost of sending a C-17 to do the job.
As The War Zone pointed out, there’s also the issue of survivability. How clever would it be to launch a large, noisy target such as a rocket into enemy territory and then return it?
In the coming fiscal year, the Air Force should be able to address these issues. And we’ll be the first to inform you if Gen. Lyons starts yelling “fast elevator to hell!”