SpaceShipOne to DropShipOne

The US Marine Corps is still working to gather support for its “troops from space” concept of using a spaceplane to rush a squad from the US to anywhere in the world within 2h, to head off a crisis or take out a bad guy. And the Marines think the nascent space tourism market could be a source of the technology they need.

“This is the same thing the commercial sector is trying to do, except we are not bringing them back to the same place,” Lt Col Paul Damphousse told the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2007 conference in Washington on Thursday.

He was talking about the USMC’s SUSTAIN initiative – for Small Unit Space Transportation And Insertion – which he likened to the iconic dropship in the movie Aliens, and which raised more than eyebrows when the concept was first proposed in 2002.

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Vision vehicle – the dropship from AliensDespite the enormous technical challenges – and even the gung-ho Marines are not anticipating such a capability before 2030-35 – it seems inevitable something like SUSTAIN will become a reality in a few decades. But the Marine Corps wants to begin demonstrating technology and developing operating concepts much sooner, and it’s conceivable space tourism could provide a jumping-off point.

The USMC tried to get a spaceplane demonstrator programme, called Hot Eagle, off the ground with the US Air Force Research Laboratory and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but DARPA decided to keep its money in the Falcon programme to demonstrate technology for a global-range hypersonic strike vehicle. So, Damphousse says, the Marines are back to “socialising” the SUSTAIN concept – trying to sell it to the other services, and to Congress.

In outline, the Marine Corps’ idea involves the on-demand launch of a 13-person combat unit into space from the continental US, overflying denied airspace to drop into the target area with speed and stealth. Launch options include vertical or horizontal take-off, hybrid or fully resuable, single-stage or two-stage to orbit. Insertion options include parafoil, runway or vertical landing. dc_xa2.GIF

If inserting the troops is hard, extracting them is “the really hard part”, says Damphousse. They could hike or be airlifted out, leaving the crew capsule behind; the capsule could be picked up by helicopter or transport; or they could fly out in the upper stage, either returning direct or linking up with a C-17 to be towed home.

Some suspension of disbelief is required to take the SUSTAIN concept seriously, although Damphousse insists the “giggle factor” is diminishing, and the idea is garnering interest. But it may take a thriving space tourism industry for the idea to become realistic. The best they can hope for is some money to continue studies – an Aliens-style dropship is for the movies and not yet for the Marines.

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