Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, speaks with Elon Musk Feb. 28, 2020, at the Air Force Association's symposium in Orlando. Credit: AFA

ORLANDO, Fla. — In his first appearance at a military conference since the establishment of the U.S. Space Force, SpaceX founder Elon Musk gave his usual pitch on the virtues of reusable rockets. But he tailored the message to an audience of airmen who started their careers in the U.S. Air Force but are now transitioning to a new service and pondering the possibilities.

“How do we make Starfleet real?” Musk asked to roaring applause during a one-hour fireside chat with the commander of the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center Lt. Gen. John Thompson Feb. 28 at the Air Force Association’s annual winter symposium.

Musk then answered his own question, insisting that reusable launch vehicles are “absolutely fundamental” to achieving whatever space ambitions the military might have, including staying ahead of China.

Many of Musk’s comments on reusable rockets were repeats of what he said at a previous appearance at an Air Force conference Nov. 5 in San Francisco, where he also sat down with Thompson.

On Friday, Musk made multiple references to the fictional Star Trek “Starfleet” to hammer the message that reusable rockets are the ticket to the future. “I think we can go a long way to make Starfleet real and these utopian futures real.”

But none of this can happen as long as the military continues to rely on expendable boosters, said Musk.

Although SpaceX has achieved commercial success and lucrative government contracts with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, Musk is fully focused on developing the new Starship vehicle that is being designed to be fully reusable like an airplane. Falcon 9 and Heavy are only partially reusable, with the first stage and the fairings now more frequently recovered.

Although Musk did not mention it, the military might be slowly coming around to reusable rockets. In the upcoming Falcon 9 launch of a GPS satellite April 29, the Space and Missile Systems Center will allow SpaceX to attempt to land the booster on a droneship at sea, a first for a national security launch.

SpaceX tried to get the Air Force to help fund the development of Starship in 2018 when the company bid for a Launch Service Agreement contract. The LSA was intended to help commercial launch providers develop new vehicles to compete for national security launch procurement contracts to be awarded later this year. The Air Force awarded LSA contracts to three other companies but not to SpaceX, prompting a legal challenge that is still pending.

At the Air Force Association chat, Musk cast Starship as an example of “radical innovation” that will keep the United States in the lead as other nations like China advance their space capabilities.

“I have zero doubt that if the United States does not create innovations in space, it will be second in space,” said Musk.

Musk envisions Starship as the vehicle that will be enable access to deep space and the eventual colonization of Mars. His plans have drawn both praise and also much skepticism.

Other companies might  want to start building fully reusable vehicles like Starship and create a more competitive industry, said Musk, a development that he said he’d welcome. “Competition is a good thing,” he said. In a not-so-subtle broadside to the Pentagon’s largest fighter aircraft program, the F-35, Musk suggested there should be more disruptive competition in the defense industry.

There were audible groans in the audience, however, when Musk said the future of air warfare is in autonomous drone warfare. “The fighter jet era has passed,” he said.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...