by DAVID AXE
Against all odds, a controversial Pentagon concept for delivering people, robots and cargo through space to remote combat zones is moving forward. For nearly eight years the so-called Small-Unit Space Transport and Insertion concept, known by its acronym “SUSTAIN,” has weathered skeptical government officials, questions about its strategic wisdom and the ongoing global recession. In recent weeks, the Pentagon office overseeing SUSTAIN completed a “technology roadmap” that spells out how the government and industry might ultimately build a space transport.
SUSTAIN has its roots in the November 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. To insert troops from ships on the Indian Ocean to southern Afghanistan, a distance of 500 miles over mountains and desert, the Pentagon relied on a complex network of forward airstrips and aerial refuelers supporting unreliable CH-53E helicopters. One chopper, piloted by Marine Major Alison Thompson, nearly crashed when it suffered a compressor stall.
Several months later, Roosevelt Lafontant, then working in a Washington, D.C. space intelligence office, had lunch with his friend Franz Gayl, a Marine Corps science adviser. The men observed that there had to be a better way to deliver people and material quickly over long distances. The answer, they realized, was space. They drew up a basic outline of the concept, called it SUSTAIN, and began enlisting supporters in their effort.
A space transport had long been on the Pentagon’s wish list. Concepts from the 1950s anticipated soldiers boarding vertical-launching rocketships for hypersonic ballistic journeys into enemy territory. The advent of NASA’s Space Shuttle in the 1970s proved that a reusable space transport was theoretically possible, but it also underscored the cost, complexity and risk of orbital transportation. Each Shuttle mission takes months to prepare and, if research is included, costs $1 billion. Two Shuttles have crashed, killing their entire crews.
In the 1990s, NASA tried to simplify space transportation by reducing the traditional two-stage rocket launch to just one. But all the single-stage transport ideas foundered, at the cost of billions of dollars. Coming in the wake of those failed concepts, Lafontant and Gayl’s SUSTAIN idea at first seemed potentially disastrous. But developments in private industry proved they were on to something. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several small tech firms literally raced to produce the world’s first private space transportation service.
In October 2004, California-based Mojave Aerospace Venture snagged the $10-million X Prize for sending a privately-developed spacecraft into near-orbit twice in a two-week period and landing it safely like an aircraft. The egg-shaped SpaceShipOne got its first-stage boost from a jet-powered mothership aircraft. SpaceShipOne fired its own solid-fueled rocket for its second stage. It spiraled to Earth with wings extended for drag.
Mojave Aerospace Venture promptly laid out plans for a bigger SpaceShipTwo that would carry paying customers to the edge of the atmosphere by 2011.
The growing ranks of SUSTAIN advocates latched onto SpaceShipOne and Two as models for their own military space transport. Over the next four years, SUSTAIN slowly gained the favor of the Pentagon space establishment. In 2008, it gained an official sponsor in the form of the National Security Space Office. The NSSO’s Marine Colonel Paul Damphousse organize a series of concept meetings and technology confabs to solidify the plan for building a SUSTAIN demonstrator sometime after 2012.
To avoid becoming yet another multi-billion-dollar technology boondoggle, of the sort the Pentagon is famous for, Damphousse decided SUSTAIN would piggyback on the efforts of private entrepreneurs, also known as the “New Space” movement. Saving money became all the more important as the world fell into recession last year. For SUSTAIN, the Pentagon would provide access to research data, testing facilities and key technologies, enabling companies like Mojave to assemble new generations of private spacecraft that the Pentagon might eventually license and adapt for its own needs. Damphousse said he envisioned early models of SUSTAIN being used for high-altitude reconnaissance and to deliver aerial robots and urgent cargo to distant war zones.
In late 2009, SUSTAIN got a big boost when NSSO organized a meeting of government and industry to firm up the concept’s tech roadmap. Lafontant, now retired from the military, advised the SUSTAIN team in an unofficial capacity.
“The industry and government roadmap panel endorsed that this space-access capability was required to achieve both the short- and long-term critical national-security, commercial and scientific needs of the United States, and that only by development of these capabilities can the U.S. reassert international leadership in these areas,” Lafontant said by email.
“The panel included the government, commercial stakeholders with the national aerospace industry, including, in full partnership, the New Space companies. The significance of this is that these guys participated on their own dime, no financial support from the government. This included the big guys, like Boeing and Northrop Grumman.”
NASA and the Pentagon’s fringe-science Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also attended.
The resulting 150-page tech roadmap document “addressed the identification and development of technologies that could potentially meet the needs of a fully functioning SUSTAIN [concept of operations,” Lafontant added. “It identifies the key technologies in systems, vehicles and propulsion technologies, the best development path options, specification of methods for technology evaluations, and methods of risk mitigation and management which are required to finally accomplish these space-access goals.”
If Lafontant’s explanation sounds dense, there’s a real-world illustration of how SUSTAIN will probably look. On December 7, Mojave unveiled the first example of its new SpaceShipTwo vehicle, pictured with designer Burt Rutan. Bigger and longer than SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo with its four-engine mothership should be capable of launching several tons of people and cargo into near-orbit then landing them, all at low cost and with a high degree of safety. When SS2 takes flight, SUSTAIN will be that much closer to its own first flight.