So you think UPS offers fast delivery? How about a rocket-quick, through-space delivery service?
Yes, that’s right, US Transportation Command is taking the potential for cargo delivery via orbit seriously enough that it hopes to test the concept with SpaceX as soon as next year, the command’s head said last week, C4ISR.net reported.
In what he called a “provocative thought,” Gen. Stephen Lyons said: “I’m really excited about the team that’s working with SpaceX on an opportunity, even perhaps in as early as ’21, to conduct a joint proof of principle” for space-based delivery.
The dream, Lyons told the National Defense Transportation Association, is to be able to move 80 tons of cargo — the equivalent of a C-17 transport — via a space-based vehicle anywhere on the globe within one hour, C4ISR.net reported.
“Think about the speed associated with that, whether a small force element or other capability,” he said. “I can tell you [SpaceX is] moving very, very rapidly in this area.”
A TRANSCOM spokesman said details of the potential “proof of principle” are being worked out with SpaceX, and it will involve “delivering cargo from one place to another through space.”
In a public release after Lyons’ comments, TRANSCOM revealed that the command entered into two cooperative research and development agreements, or CRADA, related to the project.
The Elon Musk-founded SpaceX signed on in March, and xArc, a commercial “space architecture” firm, signed on in April, C4ISR.net reported.
Under the CRADAs, the two firms are working to assess technical, regulatory and cost barriers to the idea of space-based delivery.
While the agreements do not come with federal funding, TRANSCOM is “providing expertise in logistics and distribution in austere environments which will inform commercial space industry efforts to support programs that will ultimately be required to operate on the lunar surface and eventually Mars,” according to the news release.
SpaceX has gained notoriety for its ability to launch and then land a reusable system back on Earth, something that has led to speculation that there could one day be space-based transportation around the globe, C4ISR.net reported.
The role of xArc’s is unclear, but based on its portfolio, the Austin, Texas-based company may be working on designing a landing pad of some sort.
The appeal of being able to launch cargo into orbit from the continental United States and have it land quickly is easy to see. And the concept of “point to point” cargo transfer has been around a long time.
But while the concept seems relatively simple on paper, there are technical issues in the way, cautioned Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer now with the Secure World Foundation, told C4ISR.net.
“The first big problem is G-forces, the acceleration at the beginning and then again at the end as you speed up to thousands [of] miles per hour and back down to zero,” Weeden said.
“The other is that you’re still limited in where you can go. An [intercontinental ballistic missile] travelling on a ballistic flightpath can go from the US to Russia over the North Pole, but can’t go via the South Pole. If you actually place the payload in orbit, it can theoretically go anywhere given enough time, but requires a lot more energy and cost.”
Todd Harrison, a space expert at the Center for Strategic and International Security (CSIS), told Breaking Defense the concept is “an interesting new military mission that could be enabled by advances in commercial space capabilities.”
He noted that SpaceX isn’t the only firm that could eventually be involved if it proves feasible, noting that Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are also working on space tourism and transportation.
That said, he notes there are policy and bureaucratic issues that come into play, Breaking Defense reported.
“The question I have is, whether or not space transportation for cargo and/or crew is a new mission set the Space Force is willing to take on? There are a lot of new missions like this being enabled by advances in space capabilities; the question is how quickly the Space Force will move to adopt these capabilities,” he said.
“It is another example of why we need a fresh look at the allocation of roles and missions across the military. There are a lot of new missions emerging, and if no service is designated as being responsible for something then it may very well fall between the cracks,” he added.
Legal advisor Chris Johnson told Breaking Defense, while the idea doesn’t violate the foundational 1967 Outer Space Treaty or precepts of international law, military transport spacecraft could raise the risks of accidental conflict.
“These activities may be physically possible, but how will other states determine that it isn’t an incoming warhead?” he said. “I’d like to see more about the orbital mechanics being proposed here, but I’m not convinced that these things make sense logistically, much less diplomatically.”