ORLANDO — As SpaceX prepares to attempt Starship’s first orbital flight, the company is contemplating military applications for the super-heavy launch vehicle.

Starship holds the potential to become a mobility platform for the U.S. military, said Gary Henry, senior advisor for national security space solutions at SpaceX.

Speaking Feb. 21 at the Space Mobility conference, Henry said the experience SpaceX will gain launching Starlink satellites on Starship and developing the vehicle for NASA’s Artemis program will help the U.S. military better understand how to employ it for cargo delivery and other missions. 

Henry, a former Boeing executive and U.S. Air Force officer, is working with the Air Force Research Laboratory on potential concepts for using rockets for point-to-point cargo delivery under a $102 million five-year contract awarded in 2020. 

Other space companies have signed agreements with U.S. Transportation Command to explore rocket cargo concepts but only SpaceX has won a large contract.

Greg Spanjers, program manager for rocket cargo at AFRL, said the military envisions a future when it could be cheaper to send cargo via rocket than by transport aircraft. In a national security or humanitarian crisis, a launch vehicle would fly from Cape Canaveral, for example, and either land on an austere field to deliver cargo or airdrop it. 

For the rocket cargo program to be viable, Spanjers said, DoD expects to use launch providers that fly frequently so they can offer competitive pricing.  “To make this a success, we need a very high launch rate, and we need to have systems that reenter and that can bring a high down mass,” he added. 

With regard to Starship, Henry said, SpaceX is forecasting mass to orbit costs falling from $2,000 a kilogram to $200 a kilogram, or even lower, he said. “If Elon gets his way, you’re at $20 per kilogram.”

“The cost element of this is going to be pretty compelling, and it’ll happen soon,” Henry said.

Col. James Horne, deputy director of operations at U.S. Space Systems Command, said there are “compelling use cases” for shipping cargo around the world on rockets.

“When you think about the situation in the Indo-Pacific Command area of operations, there’s a tyranny of distance issue where you’ve got a vast desert of water … and you have island chains like we saw in World War II.” 

That area “presents unique challenges from a mobility perspective that I think applications like rocket cargo could really help solve,” said Horne. 

Horne said he could not discuss specific scenarios that are being looked at, but he said the military could face transportation challenges “that cannot be solved by ships or airplanes today.”

If rocket cargo moves forward and the technology matures, the Space Force would take the lead in managing the program and procuring services, he said. “We’re already starting to actively plan for a program standup in the 2026 timeframe.”

On-orbit infrastructure

Henry said Starship’s lunar landing architecture could support the U.S. military by providing on-orbit infrastructure for logistics and refueling.

For NASA’s moon program, SpaceX would launch a Starship to low Earth orbit to serve as a fuel depot for other vehicles that would be traveling to and from the lunar surface. That infrastructure could be leveraged for national security, he said. There are ongoing discussions about “on orbit commodities to enable things like dynamic space operations and ‘maneuver without regret.’” 

These are terms used by U.S. Space Command to describe its vision for military operations in the space domain. Dynamic space operations is the ability to maneuver satellites and move payloads across different orbits, something that is not possible today because satellites don’t carry enough fuel and were not built to be refueled. 

Lt. Gen. John Shaw during a talk at the Space Mobility conference, said the U.S. military cannot maneuver satellites “without regret” because it has to conserve precious fuel. He said that complicates the nation’s ability to compete in space with rival powers that have maneuvering satellites. 

Henry said the Starship human landing system is on a path to support NASA, and not far into the future “we as a nation are going to have a capability that will fundamentally change the way we can protect and defend the space realm. And we are very excited about the prospects of being able to contribute to that discussion.”

Horne said the military is “going to need that infrastructure on orbit, not just for cargo, storage and movement, but for a lot of other applications. We’re gonna need gas tanks in the future. We may even have places where we are manufacturing things,” he added. “We’re going to find military-unique ways to use that from a national security perspective.”

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...