U.S. Transportation Command is mulling the possibility of rocket deliveries and plans to hold a proof of principle with SpaceX as early as next year, TRANSCOM Commander Army Gen. Stephen Lyons said on Oct. 7.
“This year, we entered a cooperative research and development agreement [CRADA] with SpaceX,” Lyons said. “We’re also working very closely with the Air Force Research Lab [AFRL].”
The military uses CRADAs to evaluate commercial technologies for possible fielding. TRANSCOM said on Oct. 7 that the CRADA with SpaceX also involves Texas-based Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc).
“Think about 80 short tons, the equivalent of a C-17, moving anywhere on this globe in less than one hour,” Lyons said. “Think about the speed associated with that, whether a small force element or other capability, so [we’re] thinking about movement–of transportation of cargo and people–and that speed associated with that. Then think about the ability to bypass what traditionally today becomes a real area of friction, which is traditional access basing and overflight–the diplomatic alignment that’s required to move very rapidly across the globe.”
Lyons said that there is “a lot of potential” stemming from TRANSCOM’s CRADA with SpaceX.
“I’m really excited about the team that’s working with SpaceX on an opportunity perhaps as early as ’21 to conduct a joint proof of principle,” he said.
TRANSCOM declined to release the CRADA on Oct. 7 and said that the command is still working out the details of the “joint proof of principle” with SpaceX.
The CRADA with SpaceX likely involves a variant of SpaceX’s Starship, two-stage launch vehicle. Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Gary Henry, the director of national security space solutions for SpaceX, said that “we’re on the cusp of something game changing” for TRANSCOM.
“The first instantiation [of Starship] is one where we’re able to deliver that second stage to orbit,” Henry said. “It will deliver up to 150 metric tons of cargo to orbit. The second instantiation will be a tanker version. A tanker is required to take that mass we deliver to low Earth orbit and deliver it anywhere in cislunar space and beyond, to include Mars. The third piece is the terrestrial piece. It’s not hard to imagine where once we’re able to establish those first two systems that we’ll have a third terrestrial-based system that will provide the point-to-point capability. It’s about a C-17’s worth of volume and mass that can be delivered within 30 minutes to most places on Earth. Lastly, as we take our systems we’re deploying in space and make them compatible with human life, we can take that point-to-point capability and move people in a very efficient way.”
Commercial space transportation “would allow point-to-point rapid movement of vital resources while eliminating en route stops or air refueling,” per an Oct. 7 statement from TRANSCOM. “This capability has the potential to be one of the greatest revolutions in transportation since the airplane.”
Gregory Spanjers, chief scientist of AFRL’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office and the rocket cargo project lead, said that the idea of rocket-enabled point-to-point logistics “has been floating around for 50 years because it’s a really good idea.”
Spanjers said that the key for DoD and the Air Force is to integrate commercial rockets, not to own them, in order to reduce costs.
At the height of the run up to next month’s pivotal presidential election, Lyons’ remarks were the second “moon and beyond” summons for industry in two days by DoD officials–the first being Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s voicing on Oct. 6 for a more than 500-ship Navy by 2045, a beckoning that harkens back to former Navy Secretary John Lehman’s call for a 600-ship Navy during the Reagan era (Defense Daily, Oct. 6).
The last two years have marked a vaulting by SpaceX into the military arena, first with its Falcon 9 rockets for launching communications satellites, such as Starlink, and now with its move toward launching classified payloads for National Security Space Launch and, possibly, moving military supplies and personnel–via rocket.