As part of last week’s federal budget rollout, a process during which the White House proposes funding levels for fiscal year 2022, the US Air Force released its “justification book” to compare its current request to past budget data. The 462-page book contains a lot of information about how the Air Force spends its approximately $200 billion budget.
For those tracking the development of SpaceX’s ambitious Starship vehicle, there is an interesting tidbit tucked away on page 305, under the heading of “Rocket Cargo” (see .pdf). The Air Force plans to invest $47.9 million into this project in the coming fiscal year, which begins October 1.
“The Department of the Air Force seeks to leverage the current multi-billion dollar commercial investment to develop the largest rockets ever, and with full reusability to develop and test the capability to leverage a commercial rocket to deliver AF cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity,” the document states.
Although this does not refer to Starship by name, this is the only vehicle under development in the world with this kind of capability. The Air Force does not intend to invest directly into the vehicle’s development, the document says. However, it proposes to fund science and technology needed to interface with the Starship vehicle so that the Air Force might leverage its capabilities.
Clearly, some Air Force officials are intrigued by the possibility of launching 100 tons of cargo from the United States and having the ability to land it anywhere in the world about an hour later.
Accordingly, the Air Force science and technology investments will include “novel loadmaster designs to quickly load/unload a rocket, rapid launch capabilities from unusual sites, characterization of potential landing surfaces and approaches to rapidly improve those surfaces, adversary detectability, new novel trajectories, and an S&T investigation of the potential ability to air drop a payload after reentry,” the document states.
The Air Force is spending $9.7 million on these activities in the current fiscal year but seeks to increase that total for the coming year as it moves into the test phase of the program. The funds will have to be approved by Congress as part of its budget deliberation process this summer and fall.
This clearly is an important contract for SpaceX, as the US Department of Defense has near-limitless budgets and could become an important customer of Starship. This fully reusable vehicle, currently undergoing tests in South Texas, theoretically has both the capability to fly to the Moon or Mars, as well as suborbital point-to-point flights on Earth. If it is successful, it would offer the US military logistical capabilities that no other force on the planet could match.
SpaceX already launches spy and communications satellites for the US military. However, in moving into logistics and the potential movement of munitions, the company may be treading on an ethical line with some space enthusiasts. It would also further embolden the claims of some international critics, such as Russian space leader Dmitry Rogozin, who has suggested (without evidence) that SpaceX aims to launch nuclear weapons into space.