While speaking at the National Defense Transportation Association’s Fall Meeting on Oct. 7, 2020, U.S. Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, commander, U.S. Transportation Command, announced USTRANSCOM is looking to space to quickly move critical logistics during time-sensitive contingencies or to deliver humanitarian assistance, helping to project and sustain the Joint Force in support of national objectives.
Speaking at the virtual meeting from the command’s headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., Lyons told the audience about USTRANSCOM’s partnership with Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc) to explore this emerging capability of rapid transportation through space.
“Think about moving the equivalent of a C-17 payload anywhere on the globe in less than an hour,” Lyons asked the virtual audience. “Think about that speed associated with the movement of transportation of cargo and people. There is a lot of potential here and I’m really excited about the team that’s working with SpaceX on an opportunity, even perhaps, as early as 21, to be conducting a proof of principle.”
Logistics traditionally labors under the tyranny of distance and time, and global access. For example, operations in the Pacific Ocean theater may transit 10,000 miles—one way.
“For the past 75 years or so, we have been constrained to around 40,000 feet altitude and 600 miles per hour in our very fastest method of logistics delivery—airlift,” said USTRANSCOM deputy commander, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne, who leads the command’s effort in this area.
Current space transportation is also more weight- and volume-constrained than airlift, and faces challenges in positioning, launching, and recovery operations. As industry advances to overcome these challenges as well as increase its pace of launches to decrease costs, a space transportation capability to put a crucial cargo quickly on target at considerable distances makes it an attractive alternative.
“Now, what are the possibilities for logistical fulfillment at about 10 times those figures, when the need for support on the other side of the world is urgent? It’s time to learn how our current strategies to project and sustain forces can evolve with a new mode of transportation,” continued Mewbourne.
Commercial space transportation would allow point-to-point rapid movement of vital resources while eliminating en route stops or air refueling. This capability has the potential to be one of the greatest revolutions in transportation since the airplane.
USTRANSCOM’s Technology Transfer office is now building teams of industry and academic agencies through Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, which facilitate direct, voluntary partnerships with the federal government to explore new concepts.
To investigate space transportation, USTRANSCOM is teamed with SpaceX and XArc. These partnerships allow the Department of Defense to leverage industry innovation where the bulk of technological innovation is occurring outside the U.S. Government. The CRADA, in which industry participates voluntarily without federal funding, is examining the use cases, technical and business feasibility, and concepts of employing space as a mode of transportation supporting USTRANSCOM’s role as the Defense Department’s global logistics provider.
“The potential of space transportation to deliver Defense Department cargo anywhere in the world in an hour provides an additional option to complement USTRANSCOM’s strategic sealift and airlift capabilities,” stated U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Nirav Lad, principal investigator for Space Transportation Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, USTRANSCOM’s Strategic Plans, Policy, and Logistics Directorate.
Industry is overcoming the technical and cost barriers which have blocked practical use of space transportation. USTRANSCOM is providing expertise in logistics and distribution in austere environments which will inform commercial space industry efforts to support programs that will ultimately be required to operate on the lunar surface and eventually Mars. Additionally, the CRADA partnership is investigating the legal, diplomatic, statutory, and regulatory issues that must be addressed to enable the normalization of high-frequency, point-to-point, commercial space launches.
The partnership will allow USTRANSCOM to assess the business case and return on investment requirements for both government and commercial parties to enter into long-term space transportation surge capability agreements, similar to the existing Civil Reserve Air Fleet emergency preparedness programs. The CRAF is a cooperative, voluntary program involving the Department of Transportation, DOD, and the U.S. civil air carrier industry in a partnership to augment DOD aircraft capability during a national defense-related crisis where air carriers volunteer their aircraft to the CRAF program through contractual agreements with USTRANSCOM.
“I had no sense for how fast SpaceX was moving, but I’ve received their update and I can tell you they are moving very rapidly in this area,” Lyons said.
USTRANSCOM exists as a warfighting combatant command to project and sustain military power at a time and place of the nation’s choosing. Powered by dedicated men and women, TRANSCOM underwrites the lethality of the Joint Force, advances American interests around the globe, and provide our nation’s leaders with strategic flexibility to select from multiple options, while creating multiple dilemmas for our adversaries.
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