The Pentagon has approached SpaceX regarding the purchase of Starship space launch vehicles for sensitive, high-risk missions, the company has said. At present, the U.S. government relies on non-military contractors to launch payloads for various operations, including satellite launches, and does not have its own space launch vehicles — at least any that are disclosed — which it could deploy in a potential contingency scenario. SpaceX is already working with the Air Force and Space Force on the 'Rocket Cargo' program, which seeks to rapidly deliver cargo, and possible personnel, anywhere on Earth that can support a landing.
Aviation Week was the first to report on the DoD's interest in Starship, following comments made by a SpaceX official at the Space Mobility Conference in Orlando, Florida on January 30.
SpaceX's complete 'Starship' system, as The War Zone has highlighted in the past, comprises a superheavyrocket booster and spacecraft. Starship — which will be capable of landing vertically — constitutes the largest, and most powerful, rocket ever flown, according to the company, and is reportedly capable of carrying up to 150 metric tons while being fully reusable. Eventually, SpaceX intends for its Starship system to carry crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars, but it is still in relatively early flight test development.
"We have had conversations… and it really came down to specific missions, where it's a very specific and sometimes elevated risk or maybe a dangerous use case for the Department of Defense (DoD) where they're asking themselves: Do we need to own it [Starship] as a particular asset… SpaceX, can you accommodate that?" Gary Henry, senior advisor to SpaceX, revealed to audiences at the Space Mobility Conference, Aviation Week reports.
"We've been exploring all kinds of options to kind of deal with those questions," he noted.
While stressing it was possible for the government to buy Starship if it wanted, Henry also said that "from our [SpaceX's] perspective, if you want to fully leverage the commercial attributes of a Starship or any launcher that’s out there operating commercially, you want to buy it as a service."
In addition, Col. Eric Felt, director of space architecture for the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration, discussed the potential need for transferring ownership of space launch vehicles to the government in quick order under certain circumstances at the conference.
"If we can buy the commercial service, that's what we're going to do," Felt said. "But there might be some use cases where there needs to be a government-owned, government-operated [launch vehicle] and that transfer can happen on the fly."
How exactly the 'on-demand' ownership transfer of Starship outlined by Felt would work in practice — whereby the government would take over the system for "sensitive and potentially dangerous missions" before returning it to SpaceX — remains unclear, Aviation Week notes. This appears to be something that both SpaceX and government officials are in the process of figuring out; all of which remains hypothetical at this point, given that Starship is still in development.
We have reached out to both the DoD and the company for comment.
At present, the U.S. military contracts out launch services to civilian companies, including SpaceX. In 2020, for example, SpaceX was awarded around 40% of the U.S. Space Force’s launch service contracts through 2024. The company has been heavily involved in launching U.S. military satellites via platforms such as its low-cost Falcon 9 rockets. Just recently, SpaceX used its Falcon Heavy rocket to put the X-37B into a higher orbit than ever before. Importantly, awards of these kinds have been important in facilitating SpaceX's growth over the years; and the relationship between the company and the U.S. military is only deepening.
While this may be adequate for such operations in peacetime, it's another thing during potentially dangerous military missions, or during an all-out conflict.
Given we know that SpaceX is working with the U.S. military in the latter's plans to quickly deliver essential cargo worldwide at short notice via space launch rockets, which would have obvious utility in conflict scenarios, the desire for government-owned space launch vehicles like Starship may make sense. This is despite indications in the past that SpaceX might be open to aiding the U.S. military in a launch capacity during offensive operations.
That the military was working with SpaceX, alongside other industry partners, on said plans was initially revealed in 2020. Speaking to audiences at the National Defense Transportation Association's virtual Fall Meeting in October of that year, now-retired U.S. Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, previously commander of U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), said that the DoD's future aim was to develop a project whereby the cargo-weight equivalent of a C-17 Globemaster III (roughly 85.5 tons) could be delivered anywhere in the world within an hour.
Then, in 2021, the Air Force's budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2022 requested additional funding for a 'Rocket Cargo' program. The service specifically identified TRANSCOM, with its strategic airlift mission, as well as Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) special forces as possible users of the Rocket Cargo program. It was specified that plans for the program involved transporting payloads of up to 100 tons, including cargo and potentially personnel, via orbital or suborbital profiles to forward locations. Novel load/unload concepts would be specifically developed for these operations.
In early 2022, the Air Force Research Laboratory awarded SpaceX a five-year, $102 million contract to collect flight data from the Starship rocket program in order to demonstrate technologies for point-to-point cargo and humanitarian aid transportation via Starship.
So far, however, test efforts have not been smooth sailing for the company. In April of 2023, the inaugural Starship flight test resulted in the super-heavy rocket exploding just minutes after launching, while the second flight test in November 2023 resulted in failure as the vehicle was on its way to orbit. A third test is expected later this month, following static fire testing back in December.
The Air Force expects a full demonstration of the rocket cargo concept by 2026. However, this remains contingent on positive flight testing of Starship in the near term, alongside overcoming other significant technical obstacles.
While there are potential cost-saving benefits for the U.S. military in terms of moving cargo via Starship — Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, program executive officer for assured access to space, has previously indicated that this could eventually work out to be cheaper on a daily rate than using C-17s — being able to deliver essential cargo quickly to austere locations is a key benefit. C-17s, for example, take roughly 18 hours to fly to any given location on Earth. Obviously, such a claim will be tagged as highly aspirational if not outright dubious by many.
Being able to rapidly deploy cargo across long distances quickly would have notable benefits in the context of the Indo-Pacific. Given that figures within the U.S. military envision a likely near-term, high-end conflict in that region involving U.S. forces, which some have stressed could commence before 2026, it is likely the "sensitive and potentially dangerous missions" Starship may be expected to perform could take place during a Pacific fight.
"Coupled with short timelines of a launch from [Cape Canaveral Space Force Station] or Vandenburg [SFB] to the Pacific Theater," Purdy previously said at the April 2023 Space Symposium, "[Starship’s capacity] really starts to open one's eyes to think about how can we support an Indo-Pacom fight directly with a rocket cargo type concept that comes back and lands on different islands."
Other potential missions may include quickly launching satellites during a possible future war in space with a near-peer adversary such as Russia or China, which has become an increasing concern in recent years given that space is now a highly contested environment. Rapid space access for replacing lost satellites and putting new capabilities in orbit during a conflict has long been a major goal of the Pentagon. With Starships heavy-lift capabilities, it could deploy entire constellations of smaller satellites rapidly if needed, as well.
Independence of direct ownership would also mean the DoD would have assured access to the capability outside of the influence of corporate whims. Elon Musk shutting off some access to Starlink satellites to Ukraine due to the technology being used to support offensive operations against targets in Crimea likely remains fresh in Pentagon planners' minds.
With much resting on Starship testing in the months ahead, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. military will in fact be able to fast-track cargo supply via space launch rockets in the future. However, the recent comments highlight that, if this does indeed become a reality, the Pentagon envisions the ownership of Starship as an important need going forward.
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