The Trump administration's plan to establish a separate branch of the U.S. military for space operations has experts scratching their heads in confusion.
The proposal for a so-called Space Force also seems to have inspired a desperate scramble by the U.S. Air Force, which currently leads military space operations, to justify its manpower and funding.
To that end, Carlton Everhart—the general in charge of Air Mobility Command, which oversees the Air Force's transport planes—has proposed a frankly bizarre scheme to boost military supplies into orbit and then drop them to U.S. forces in distant war zones.
Experts said the orbital supply runs would be enormously expensive and impractical. "It seems like an answer in search of a problem and willfully misunderstanding how orbital mechanics works," Victoria Samson, a space expert with the Secure World Foundation in Colorado, told The Daily Beast.
Everhart told reporters he pitched orbital supply runs to SpaceX during a late-July visit to the company's Hawthorne, California headquarters to discuss the company's new BFR heavy booster, often referred to as the “Big Fucking Rocket.”
"I said, I need to get me some of that. How do I do that?" Everhart said of his conversation with SpaceX's president Gwynne Shotwell.
Everhart's idea, which he admitted was incomplete, could involve using a BFR or some other rocket type to boost relatively small quantities of supplies into low-Earth orbit—roughly between 100 and 1,000 miles above the surface—and de-orbiting them, on demand, to re-supply combat troops.
Everhart was under the impression that a rocket might be able to boost a 150-ton payload into orbit and deliver it within 30 minutes at lower cost than a traditional cargo flight by a C-5 airlifter could achieve. "Think about this," Everhart said. "Thirty minutes, 150 metric tons, [and] less than the cost of a C-5."
One of the Air Force's four-engine C-5s can carry 60 tons of cargo a distance of 5,000 miles in 10 hours at a cost of around $1 million. It's unclear how much a SpaceX's new Big Fucking Rocket will cost, per mission. But a single launch by an Atlas V, currently the military's main heavy rocket, costs around $100 million and can deliver at most 20 tons of payload to low orbit.
Moreover, the military has well-established procedures for getting cargo from the plane that initially carried it to the troops in the field—that is, indirectly via helicopter and truck or directly by dropping the supplies under parachutes. It's unclear exactly how U.S. forces would receive and distribute supplies plummeting from orbit.
There's also the issue of, well, physics. "You would need to have many, many supply packages on orbit because as the Earth rotates, certain packages will no longer be close to the drop point on Earth," Samson said.
And forget changing a payload's direction once it's in orbit. "Changing orbits in space is an enormously expensive maneuver that would limit utility to a few predictable customers," James Oberg, a former NASA mission controller, told The Daily Beast. "It's not like the Navy setting up a floating depot that ships moving in all directions could stop at for replenishment."
Air Mobility Command scrambled to explain Everhart's idea—and to distance it from the Trump administration's Space Force scheme.
"Comments last week about the potential for leveraging AMC capabilities in the space domain have nothing to do with the possibility of a future space force," Maj. Bryon McGarry, an Air Mobility Command spokesperson, told The Daily Beast. "Rather, they provide insight into AMC's commitment to identifying and developing any capability that will allow us to more effectively transit the globe and support the joint warfighter."
"Gen. Everhart's vision is all about enhancing logistics in any way possible, up to and including leveraging the space domain to accomplish the mission," McGarry added.
"This suggestion seems like it came from someone musing out loud," Samson noted.
But such musings make sense as the administration pushes harder for a Space Force. Trump first mentioned idea of a separate military branch for space during a speech in March. Military officials and lawmakers resisted the idea.
After all, America already has a military branch for space operations. The Air Force handles military rocket launches, develops most of the Pentagon's spacecraft and tracks satellites on behalf of the whole government, while leaving room for the Army and Navy to undertake certain niche space missions of their own.
Creating a separate branch for space wouldn't mean more or better rockets and satellites. But it would mean more bureaucrats. "Space Force is a bad idea because it creates another self-interested bureaucracy with a set of capabilities that intrinsically need to be shared across the services," Robert Farley, a professor at the University of Kentucky and the author of Grounded: the Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force, told The Daily Beast.
But "Space Force" caught on with Trump's base. And in a series of pronouncements and executive orders, the administration has tried to sidestep military and Congressional opposition in order to make a space force a reality. "It is not enough for American merely to have a presence in space," Vice Pres. Mike Pence said in a speech on Thursday. "We must have dominance in space."
Hours later, a Trump's campaign asked supporters to help it pick a logo for Space Force merchandise. One potential logo includes the slogan "Mars Awaits." NASA, not the military, is in charge of the United States’ missions to Mars.
The Space Force scheme, and the potential for the Air Force to lose status and funding to a new bureaucracy, could explain desperate, poorly-thought-out ideas such as Everhart's. "The [Air Force] is leery about losing their role as the primary lead for space," Samson said.