WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As the cost of access to space continues to fall it opens up new possibilities for a wide range of industries, the us military included.
Today the US already uses its unmatched fleet of cargo planes to project its influence and move its forces around the globe. But what if they did the same thing with rockets?
Thanks to the recent emergence and resurgence of the American private space industry, the US Air Force can now consider a wild sounding possibility – rocket launches that blast cargo into space to land anywhere in the world within half an hour. Something that Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX posited recently except with humans as the cargo, now military equipment. Last week, at a military conference outside Dallas, Air Force officials confirmed that the service has met with private space companies to discuss the possibility.
“They have talked about moving cargo in space, and we’ve sat down with SpaceX and had that discussion,” Gen. Maryanne Miller, the commander of Air Force Material Command, told reporters, before adding, “but it’s really just discussion at this point.” She also pointed out that the Pentagon hasn’t yet put any money on the table. “We won’t commit any resources yet,” she said. “But we’ve committed to work with them to see how quickly they progress.”
With Blue Origin and Virgin Orbit also discussing the militarization of their suborbital launch hardware, the possibility of this idea making it to reality is legitimate. Virgin head Richard Branson even made an appearance at the conference.
The argument for cargo delivery by space starts with speed. A C-5 aircraft can carry 150 tons of supplies to the other side of the globe in ten hours, which is pretty impressive. But a rocket could launch a capsule that delivers the same amount in half an hour. In cases of extreme emergencies, for example, moving antidotes for toxic weapons, replacements for damaged gear, or a fresh load of ammunition, speed equals saved lives and successful missions.
The US Air Force already has the relevant experience. It manages not only satellite launches and orbital traffic, but also the American arsenal of nuclear ICBMs. While you may not immediately think of them this way, intercontinental ballistic missiles are kind of spacecraft, just with a nuclear bomb on top of them, not people or cargo. They cruise along a ballistic trajectory higher than the International Space Station (ISS) that can drop them anywhere in the world in a half hour, and they can be reprogrammed to hit new targets in minutes. So delivering supplies by rocket is actually just a small twist on what the Air Force can do now – albeit without the nuclear warheads.
The cargo rockets would also be larger than ICBMs to carry heavier loads. The Air Force has said the SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket, currently in development, would be one option to replace a C-5 mission. In theory, the US could eventually create a network of prepositioned supplies at spaceports, ready for quick packaging into a spacecraft.
As for recovery, the math of a ballistic launch can already place capsules and warheads with dependable accuracy. The new craft would manoeuvre in atmosphere to make a pinpoint landing from space. This could take the form of capsules fixed with flight control surfaces for precision glides or steerable parachutes for more pinpoint landings.
While the cost of launching rockets is still daunting by most standards it’s dropped a hundred fold in just a few years thanks to the introduction of reusable rockets, but when it comes to expensive so is the cost of running fleets of sophisticated cargo planes like the US C-5 fleet. With launch prices falling, particularly with air-launched rockets such as the ones Virgin offers, space delivery could be an emergency option that pays off. Miller’s predecessor, Gen. Carlton Everhart, said earlier this year that the cost estimates he had heard were in line with using and flying a C-5 Galaxy aircraft. And that was then, this is now – and they’re falling all the time thanks to the introduction and development of new low Earth orbit delivery systems such as the space planes from Virgin Galactic, rockets from SpaceX and new rocket engine developments like the single stage Aerospike.
The Pentagon traditionally issues its requirements for a system and then buys the hardware from the private space industry as exclusive operators. This is a more off-the-shelf approach to acquisition, one that leverages the creativity of the surging commercial launch industry to dominate space.
So if this doesn’t happen, we can take out our disappointment on private space company engineers. Whatever future exists for these systems seems to rest in their hands, says Todd Harrison, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the think tank CSIS. And the possibilities don’t end with cargo.
“Companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin are already developing suborbital spacecraft for commercial passengers,” Harrison says. “It’s not too much of a stretch to think that in 10 to 15 years, the military could ask these companies to adapt what they have already developed to serve military missions.”
So one day, military deployment could mean boarding a rocket… How things change.