The Pentagon Wants to Send Cargo Rockets Around the World in Minutes—with Elon Musk's Help
From popular mechanics
The Pentagon and Elon Musk's SpaceX are jointly investigating rockets to send cargo around the world.
Missiles would enable the US military to send equipment and supplies to virtually anywhere on earth in minutes.
While it's an attractive proposition, there are many downsides - starting with the astronomical cost.
The Pentagon Transport Command and Elon Musk's SpaceX are working with rockets to investigate how cargo can be transported through space. The plan increases the prospect of sending much-needed supplies to U.S. forces anywhere on earth within minutes. While the idea is technically feasible, there are several factors, including cost and lead time, that may not make it feasible.
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A rocket ship fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California could theoretically go into low-earth orbit and re-enter the atmosphere pretty much anywhere on the planet.
Missile travel would have an amazing impact on military transport. For example, a C-17 Globemaster III heavy transporter traveling at 500 mph takes 12 hours to get from California to Okinawa, Japan - an island practically on China's doorstep. However, a missile could make the trip in 30 minutes or less.
Missiles do not require a chain of tankers to support a mission, nor do they require permission to fly over foreign countries on a long, winding flight route. Missiles are - at least for now - safe and secure, and no country is in a position to shoot them down on the most conceivable routes.
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"Remember to get the equivalent of a C-17 payload anywhere in the world in less than an hour," General Stephen R. Lyons, chief of transportation, told Air Force magazine. Lyon is likely referring to SpaceX's spacecraft rocket. Starship developed SpaceX, a massive 160-foot rocket, to transport people and cargo to the moon, Mars, and possibly beyond. It could also make quick leaps across the earth. The spacecraft can carry 100 tons of cargo while the C-17 plane can carry 85 tons.
Two possible modes of transport are examined. One of these is a no-hassle flight from a space base in the continental US overseas. The second involves prepositioning supplies in orbit on a spaceship that could quickly exit orbit and land if necessary. Both could deliver goods in about an hour or less.
Could it work? There is nothing to suggest that this is not the case. SpaceX has fired nearly 100 rockets to date with only two total or partial failures. Equally important to a replenishment mission is a successful landing, and the company is setting a fairly successful record in that regard. The technical considerations for the military cargo mission are not the deal breakers, especially given the fact that other ground-based attempts to bring cargo to U.S. forces could be intercepted by an adversary.
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One problem associated with space travel is time. While the actual space flight may only take 30 minutes, preparing a space transport mission can take days, weeks, or even months. A rocket must be prepared for space flight. This includes setting up on the launch pad, refueling the rocket and installing the cargo payload.
Missiles can only be fired in relatively good weather; Bad conditions can lead to delays of up to a week. So a trip that is less than an hour would take considerably longer to prepare. Storing cargo aboard satellites would ensure a quick response, but the trick would be to get the right supplies into orbit ahead of time.
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Then there is the biggest problem that military space transport has to contend with: the sheer cost.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 spacecraft with a capacity of 25 tons will cost $ 28 million to launch. SpaceX estimates the Starship rocket could cost only $ 2 million per launch. On the other hand, a 12-hour flight from California to Japan on a C-17 Globemaster III costs $ 312,000. That cost doubles when the plane flies home to get more gear.
There's also the cost of an air tanker like the KC-135 Stratotanker to aid the mission. Even by the best estimates, rocket transport can easily cost four times the cost of transporting the same cargo by air.
Even so, the cost isn't everything, especially when the bullets are flying. If an island like Okinawa, home to 30,000 US military personnel, is blocked by the People's Liberation Army, missiles could be the only way to supply troops.
While space transportation is still far too expensive to become a peacetime military activity, if Transportation Command and SpaceX work out a plan to quickly prepare and launch a cargo missile, they could become a useful alternative during the war.
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