August 17, 2022

SpaceX and Space Force: A Match Made in the Heavens?

Moving cargo to anywhere on the globe, providing just-in-time strategic offloads of military gear and supplies, is not a reality yet. But visionary Air Force Research Laboratory researchers and the U.S. Transportation Command planners are thinking about it. What makes this more plausible is the rapid advances in rocket development by Elon Musk’s SpaceX ventures with the successful Dragon and Dragon 2 spacecraft and Falcon 9 launching system with reusable rocket boosters.

Amy Thompson recently reported for Space.com that “SpaceX launched its 17th rocket of the year today (June 3), sending a robotic Dragon cargo capsule toward the International Space Station before nailing a landing at sea.” What Thompson means is that the SpaceX Falcon 9 first-stage rocket separated from the rest of the ship after expending the fuel and returned for a soft landing on one of SpaceX’s autonomous ship platforms.

SpaceX's Starship Rocket

This mission carried cargo to the International Space Station, and the recovery operation made the first-stage booster reusable and the launches overall less costly. Connect the dots: 17 successful cargo- mission launches in one year, reusable rocket, less expensive.

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see the value of rockets to move military cargo when it’s needed quickly. Rockets are very quick. Juxtapose the success of SpaceX with the Space Force, and you begin to see a match made in heaven – in this case, literally.

At an Airlift/Tanker Association conference in October 2020, U.S. Army General Stephen R. Lyons, commander of U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), told the attendees, “Think about moving 80 short tons, the equivalent of a C-17 [an aircraft capable of carrying outsize cargo] payload, anywhere on the globe in less than an hour,” according to Michael Kleiman, USTRANSCOM Public Affairs.  Kleiman quoted U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Nirav Lad, plans officer at USTRANSCOM, who explained:

“USTRANSCOM 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. We continue to assess point-to-point space transportation from multiple perspectives to determine the viability for USTRANSCOM to be among the customers of a healthy commercial space transportation market.”

Space News reports that the U.S. Air Force has budgeted $47.9 million in the Fiscal Year 2022 President’s Budget Request to put its money where its space aspirations are. Air Force budget documents identify a program named “rocket cargo” as the target for the funding. Sandra Irwin, the author of the Space News article, described the Air Force’s space cargo initiative this way:

“These are research investments that the Air Force believes could provide useful capabilities in the future. Vanguard programs funded to date include artificial intelligence technologies, autonomous vehicles, and navigation satellites … The rocket cargo program would continue work that started last year when the Air Force signed agreements with SpaceX and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc) to study concepts for rapid transportation through space.”

According to Nathan Strout in C4ISRNET, “The Air Force noted in its budget request that if successful, Rocket Cargo would replace the existing TRANSCOM Strategic Airlift mission as a cheaper, faster alternative.” The Wall Street Journal’s Doug Cameron raised the ante in his article “Pentagon Envisions Using Cargo Rockets.” He reported:

“The U.S. Air Force, in partnership with the new Space Force, said Friday [June 4] that it wants to leverage work that companies are doing on space delivery to allow for the transport of up to 100 tons of military cargo anywhere in the world within an hour. That’s roughly the carrying capacity of a C-17 military transport jet.”

_Serenity_ Firefly-class Transport

But replacing the Strategic Airlift Mission may be an aspiration too far. The definition of strategic mission is deploying oversize cargo, armored vehicles, and tanks long distances. Furthermore, these endeavors fit into the more extensive Air Mobility System, with ground handling equipment and significant infrastructure currently made up of large aerial ports.

Clearly, the current capability of even the Falcon Heavy does not accommodate the roll-on, roll-off of combat vehicles. Current rockets still go up standing on their tails, making offloading not feasible.

The Air Force appears to be studying the operational use of cargo rockets with a measured and thoughtful approach. Including the private sector space industry will help ensure that the initiative will benefit from rapid commercial development and production concepts. Cargo may be carried by rockets in the distant future, but the scene may look more like Serenity, the “Firefly-class Multipurpose, Mid-Bulk Transport Boat” from the television series Firefly.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.

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