Starship Troopers? TRANSCOM-SpaceX Accord Raises Policy Eyebrows

 In State, Air, Space
SpaceX Starship, SpaceX image

SpaceX Starship image

WASHINGTON: Transportation Command’s (TRANSCOM) inked a new partnership with SpaceX and XArc to study whether cargo, and people, could be rapidly transported to hot spots via spacecraft. It’s got both air power and space analysts shaking their heads — both in admiration and skepticism.

While generally lauding TRANSCOM for its willingness to consider new ideas — and raising a toast to the continued marketing genius of SpaceX founder Elon Musk — a number of experts (including some wearing uniforms) caution that the viability of using commercial spacecraft to ferry logistics across the globe remains in doubt for technical, economic and even bureaucratic reasons.

(Those like us who’ve been around the space policy block more than once can remember the ridicule the Marine Corps endured back starting in 2002 when leaders put forth the Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion, or SUSTAIN, concept to ferry Marines around the globe on a suborbital transport. One veteran space wonk answered my query about TRANSCOM’s interest in SpaceX’s Starship — designed to carry cargo and crew to the Moon and eventually Mars — with one word: “Sigh.”)

But others found more value in the effort. “Creating teams of industry and academic experts—and hopefully military operators and planners as well—to explore concepts for rapid space lift and other logistics operations is certainly worthwhile,” Mitchell Institute’s Director of Future Concepts Mark Gunzinger told me in an email.

“That said, while industry is making progress on “technical and cost barriers” related to the practical use of space transportation, it is not at the point where it would be a cost-effective means compared to other alternatives, such as prepositioning additional critical materials forward. Will rapid space lift ever be a reality? Yes, but it will probably be decades, not a few years, before it is cost effective,” he added.

Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, head of TRANSCOM, announced the deal, made under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), yesterday at the National Defense Transportation Association. “There is a lot of potential here and I’m really excited about the team that’s working with SpaceX on an opportunity, even perhaps, as early as ’21, to be conducting a proof of principle,” he said.

“We are currently referring to moving the equivalent of a C-17 payload anywhere on the globe in less than an hour. As technology changes, we may be able to move more cargo through space,” a TRANSCOM spokesperson explained in an email yesterday.

“Through the CRADA we are looking at investigating the technical possibility of using SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy launch vehicle to deliver cargo and personnel, and this could be launch and land on ground, launch and land at sea, or a combination of the two,” the spokesperson added. CRADAs are voluntary partnerships, and involve no federal funding.

Carissa Christensen, CEO of Bryce Space and Technologies, told me in an interview yesterday that the accord shows “how good SpaceX is at, building a community of interest around a product — even one that doesn’t exist yet. And that process has been so interesting because the space industry is so filled with people who think about engineering as driving everything. And I think that, you know, at a certain level, visionary storytelling has driven SpaceX’s success.”

She said that while it’s always worthwhile for DoD to explore “groundbreaking and potentially impracticable ideas” because “you learn things,” the idea of point-to-point transportation through space is an idea whose time has certainly not come.

“The research work that we’ve done has led us to have the view that it’s a decade plus, maybe even multiple decades, in the future for that to be economical and practical from any commercial standpoint,” she said. “Often defense systems are on the leading edge of commercial applications, but I certainly would not expect that to be a near-term solution. And I think that point-to-point cargo markets are very difficult to think of.”

Todd Harrison, a space expert at the Center for Strategic and International Security (CSIS), said 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.

“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.

Indeed, TRANSCOM said the CRADA with SpaceX will also investigate the legal, diplomatic, statutory, and regulatory issues that must be addressed to enable the normalization of high-frequency, point-to-point, commercial space launches.”

For example, said Secure World Foundation’s Victoria Samson, the advent of military transport through space would raise a host of regulatory issues.

“It seems like it would provide a host of traffic management questions, as well as spaceport issues,” she told me in an email. “Where would these craft be taking off/landing? Will we have spaceport bases in allied territory, and if not, how does this benefit our troops overseas if we still have to move them through ground transportation systems?”

Likewise, SWF’s legal advisor Chris Johnson said that, 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.”

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