Opinion | Technology

Is the Space Force about to acquire SpaceX Starships?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Eric Berger over at Ars Technica has noticed something in the Department of the Air Force section of President Biden's fiscal 2022 budget proposal. The Air Force is proposing to spend money to study how the Starship rocket being developed by SpaceX could be used to deliver 100 tons of cargo anywhere in the world within one hour. The Starship as a point-to-point cargo hauler may be just the first task that the SpaceX rocket ship is asked to perform.

Certainly, the military would appreciate having the ability to send supplies to any place in the world within an hour. The practical problems of making the Starship work as a cargo hauler would be formidable. A single insurgent with a ground-to-air missile might turn a landing into a fireball.

The Motley Fool, a private investment advice company, is quite bullish on the military potential of the Starship. The company envisions the SpaceX rocket ship performing a variety of military missions from low Earth orbit to the vicinity of the moon. Starship could be used as a mobile, versatile reconnaissance platform, using its store of fuel and six vacuum-optimized Raptor engines to maneuver where it needs to go.

The SpaceX Starship could perform a number of other military missions, such as striking at the space assets of enemy nations in times of war and defending American satellites and other space-based installations. The rocket ship could refuel American satellites, extending their operational lifespans. It could even be used to help clean up space debris. The Space Force would thus grow from a handful of personnel manning consoles and conducting planning meetings to a true war fighting branch of the military.

The Starship, currently under development at the SpaceX testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas, is the instrument of company CEO Elon Musk's dream to build a settlement on Mars. Musk envisions the rocket ship taking settlers and the supplies they need to survive to the red planet, making a new branch of human civilization.

NASA is already so impressed by the Starship that it has contracted SpaceX to build a lunar-landing version of it to return astronauts to the moon as early as 2024. The selection has enraged Musk's rivals such as Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos and has perturbed some members of Congress. Both have only themselves to blame - Blue Origin for offering an inferior design and Congress for underfunding the Human Landing System project.

Military technology development has often been defined by the advent of new ways to transport people and cargo. The racing galleon of the 16th century became the frigates and ships of the line that defined naval warfare in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The steam engine and iron and steel armor led to the dreadnoughts of the early 20th century. Modern warships incorporate nuclear power. Air travel has caused the same sort of evolution, from the motorized kites of World War I to modern jets that can deliver destruction and death from thousands of miles away.

Now, space transportation technology is poised to cause a similar revolution in the military's ability to defend the United States and its allies and to inflict mayhem and death on any enemy that would propose to make war on America. The great irony is that the Starship will be used by a branch of the military that Musk once compared to Starfleet, the fictional service depicted in the "Star Trek" television shows and movies. The thought would likely bring a smile to the face of the franchise's creator, Gene Roddenberry, in whatever afterlife one envisions him inhabiting.

No doubt entire libraries will be written about how life has started to imitate art in this way. As a practical matter, the United States, by being the first to develop a true war fighting capability beyond the Earth's atmosphere, will have ensured its survival as a free society and the dominant superpower. Friends of America should take comfort in this fact. American power has, by and large, been a force for good.

America's enemies, though, should take caution. Their ability to make trouble is about to be further circumscribed. No other country has the capabilities that the SpaceX Starship will provide or is likely to for quite some time to come.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration titled "Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?" as well as "The Moon, Mars and Beyond" and, most recently, "Why is America going back to the Moon." He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other venues.

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