The Air Force Air Mobility Command (AMC) has started looking at shipping and prepositioning cargo in space within 10 years, according to its commander.
Air Force Gen. Carlton Everhart II told reporters on Thursday at a Defense Writers Group event that he visited with SpaceX and Virgin Orbit last week and hopes to visit Blue Origin soon too. He said SpaceX leaders “tell me they can go around the globe in 30 minutes with a BFR,” the company’s in-development larger model reusable Big Falcon Rocket.
“But think about this. 30 minutes, 150 metric tons, less than the cost of a C-5,” he added. In contrast, it takes cargo aircraft eight to 10 hours to travel the same distance.
He raised this idea with SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer (COO) Gwynne Shotwell, who agreed the idea is possible and they can start working on it after the BFR starts flying around 2020.
The space cargo missions could be modeled on the SpaceX deliveries to the International Space Station (ISS) and probably focus on materiel rather than food or water.
Everhart said, “I’m willing to stick anything up there” and while it could be Humvees, it would probably be general hardware and materiel.
Everhart said he was flexible on how to develop this capability with the Air Force.
"We’re looking at partnering with anyone in industry. I just went to SpaceX and I want to get to Blue Origin – I want to get to any part of industry, whether that’s vertical lift, or horizontal to vertical and then back down, so I can get around the globe quickest to be able to, like you say, affect that adversary.”
While this idea is “just in its nascent stages right now,” he said the command can start working on the concepts over the next five years and move to an operationally routine capability within 10 years.
When the private companies are moving to 12-20 launches per month, that drives down the costs further and this Air Force cargo work does not have to be limited to the BFR; NASA’s Space Launch Systems (SLS) expendable heavy-lift rocket is also an option, Everhart said.
The AMC chief said the program will probably not start getting funded in budget documents until at least 2022 in the next Program Objective Memorandum (POM).
“Honestly, 2022 is too late, it is. I want it now…This is the avenue for the future and I firmly believe that.”
He said if he can get it introduced and start the concepts now he would do it with his program’s own money.
“The bottom line is it’s not soon enough, I don’t want to wait until 2022. I don’t want to wait until 2021. I don’t even want to wait until 2019 but that’s coming around the corner.”
Everhart noted he already wrote white papers on this and talked with Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, about possible partnering opportunities. He wants to mix AMC personnel in Space Command and vice versa so they can learn from each other because “if we stay just with in the air domain, Air Mobility Command is going to become irrelevant.”
In terms of logistics and specifics, Everhart said he is flexible and open to whatever works.
Although he is agnostic on which orbit is best, “I’m telling you, if commercial industry is going to launch 5,000 satellites, I don’t think Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is the place to put it. It gets cluttered up there.”
He said it might make sense to position it between the Earth and the Moon, geosynchronous orbit, or some other option.
Everhart acknowledged they still need to work out how to get the cargo in whatever orbit, guard it, and the logistics of how to get it to the right location and whatever infrastructure that requires on the Earth side.
He said the technology for this exists but AMC and industry need to experiment with it and figure out the liabilities, what kind of footprint it takes up, the fuel it needs, whether to land in offshore or on land, and what infrastructure U.S. bases might require for it.