March 1, 2024

US military hopes to one day transport supplies, perhaps troops, on SpaceX Starship

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While NASA is rooting for SpaceX to match Starship’s success so it can take humans to the Moon, the U.S. military has plans of its own for the massive rocket that could include launches from Florida’s Space Coast.

Elon Musk’s next-generation rocket currently under development at SpaceX’s southeast Texas facility is preparing for its third suborbital test flight later this month, after the first two ended in explosions last year. It’s part of the company’s long-term plans for a fully reusable spacecraft with more payload capacity in space than any other rocket ever launched.

The Starship’s potential also includes flying quickly from one point on Earth to another, which is what the Defense Department is interested in. This was discussed during the Space Mobility Conference held by the Space Force at the Orange County Convention Center earlier this month.

“Point-to-point rocket payload is not the reason we are building Starship,” said SpaceX senior advisor Gary Henry. “We’re building a starship to get to Mars.” [But] “What we discovered is that it is a system that we are putting together that has profound impacts for national security, and one of them is the point-to-point rocket.”

The big driver of this is the potential that the military could use the rocket to send supplies, and perhaps even troops in the future, to anywhere in the world in less than an hour. Defense department officials began looking into the idea two decades ago, but only recently has it come closer to reality.

“Imagine a series of containers sitting in a warehouse in [Cape] Canaveral, we go to an alert level, we pull them up, you start putting them on the rocket,” said Gregory Spanjers, chief scientist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. “At each successive alert level, your time to launch shrinks and shrinks and shrinks, and we can get it down to an hour.”

Spanjers said teams are already making mockups of Starship’s cargo bay to figure out how to take advantage of a quick supply run.

Speed ​​is the obvious attraction, but the cost is falling and approaching existing expenses for moving supplies.

Henry said SpaceX’s current fleet of Falcon 9 rockets with boosters originally designed to fly 10 times, but with future boosters that could go up to 40 times, has raised the price of flight payloads from about $4,500 per pound to about of US$900 per pound.

Falcon 9s have a capacity of 44,000 pounds to 132,000 pounds.

“But Starship is a very different animal,” he said. “Starship was created to be rapidly reusable… We designed the vehicle from the ground up to fly 100 times, not 10 times, and it will deliver [220,000 to 250,000 pounds] 100 to 115 metric tons for low Earth orbit.”

He said Starship would reduce the cost trajectory to a starting point of $90 per pound. Musk said he can see that value dropping further, to $9 a kilo, in the future.

Henry said those are prices close to what you would get for a C-17 cargo plane, the military’s flagship, but with flights that take hours instead of minutes.

He also emphasized how frequently SpaceX plans to launch.

“In a few years we will be launching hundreds of Starships, and soon after that thousands of times a year,” he said. “And assuming you have a rapidly reusable system that could, say, launch twice a day, from a single launch pad, you will find out very, very quickly, we will run out of places to launch.”

Right now, SpaceX has one usable launch tower at Starbase in Texas, but it is already building more. Steel beams built at SpaceX’s Kennedy Space Center facility were loaded Wednesday onto a barge to head to Starbase. SpaceX is also building a Starship launch tower at KSC.

To fulfill its launch plans, it will need multiple launch towers from its existing launch sites in KSC, Texas and California, but SpaceX could also spread its presence to new launch sites in the future, and this could power points-a -point. plans the military is interested in, Henry said.

“I think the answer is that we will need both as a company, but also as a nation, to fully leverage Starship,” he said. “We’re going to need a proliferation of launch sites [within the continental U.S.] and perhaps even globally to fully capture this.”

It’s one facet of China’s growing space program that is beginning to outpace that of the U.S.

During a talk at the conference, Space Force intelligence analyst Master Sgt. Ronald Lerch of Space Systems Command said China was beginning to build more launch sites and advance its types of rockets to reach the US.

“There’s a bottleneck they need to alleviate, so they’re doing something about it,” he said, noting that it also carried out its first sea launch in the South China Sea.

He also noted that their prices are also expected to fall with China’s Long March 5 rocket flying at about $1,360 per pound, but the Long March 9 rocket is intended to be completely reusable with a price cut in half to $680 per pound. .

“China is getting very, very close. It is moving at full speed in terms of reuse,” he said, and that it also depends on commercial launches, and not just government rockets.

This momentum fuels China’s position as a superpower in space, as it continues to build its low-Earth orbit space station and has plans to carry out a manned lunar landing before the end of the decade. In addition to any kind of lunar competition, China’s aggressiveness in terms of trying to reunify with Taiwan worries the US military.

“Right now we have a very aggressive adversary,” said Space Force Col. Nathan Vosters, director of requirements, capabilities and programs for the Indo-Pacific region.

He said the ability to deliver quickly to that part of the world is directly linked to ensuring a free and open region, which generates 60% of the world’s gross domestic product.

“This technology, I think, has the opportunity to promote a seamless, free and open Indo-Pacific, while also directly contributing to the fighting of war, if and when that time comes,” he said. “At the very least, this changes the calculation problem a little for our adversaries in the region.”

Spanjers said overcoming the technological hurdle Starship is attempting is essential, but everyone on the board felt it was just a matter of time.

“I hope we see a successful demonstration here very quickly,” he said. “I think we’re all on your side because it advances where we’re going.”

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