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Monday, November 01, 2010

Semper Fly: Marines in Space


Feature
A proposed suborbital space transport will put boots on the ground anywhere in the world in two hours or less. But can it overcome huge technological-and political-hurdles?

by Peter Bollinger Peter Bollinger
For a look at a prototypical Space Marine mission, launch the photo gallery.
As any battlefield commander will tell you, getting troops to the fight can be as difficult as winning it. And for modern-day soldiers, the sites of conflict are so far-flung, and the political considerations of even flying over another country so complicated, that rapid entry has become nearly impossible. If a group of Marine Corps visionaries have their way, however, 30 years from now, Marines could touch down anywhere on the globe in less than two hours, without needing to negotiate passage through foreign airspace. The breathtaking efficiency of such a delivery system could change forever the way the U.S. does battle.
The proposal, part of the Corps's push toward greater speed and flexibility, is called Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion, or Sustain. Using a suborbital transport-that is, a vehicle that flies into space to achieve high travel speeds but doesn't actually enter orbit-the Corps will be able, in effect, to instantaneously deliver Marine squads anywhere on Earth. The effort is led by Roosevelt Lafontant, a former Marine lieutenant colonel now employed by the Schafer Corporation, a military-technology consulting firm working with the Marines. Insertion from space, Lafontant explains, makes it possible for the Marines-typically the first military branch called on for emergency missions-to avoid all the usual complications that can delay or end key missions. No waiting for permission from an allied nation, no dangerous rendezvous in the desert, no slow helicopter flights over mountainous terrain. Instead, Marines could someday have an unmatched element of surprise, allowing them to do everything from reinforce Special Forces to rescue hostages thousands of miles away.
"Sustain is simply an ability to move Marines very rapidly from one place to another," says Marine colonel Jack Wassink, director of the Corps's Space Integration Branch in Arlington, Virginia, where the program is based. "Space lends itself to that role."
The program is quickly gaining traction. Congress has expressed interest, because of the obvious usefulness of the capability it promises. And the technologies necessary to make it happen, from hypersonic propulsion systems to new composite materials needed to make the vehicle lightweight yet strong, are in advanced development in military labs across the country. The Marines expect to fly a prototype in 15 years, most likely a two-stage system using a carrier aircraft that will launch a lander into orbit from high altitude. Production models could show up around 2030, a date that isn't quite as far away as it seems. Consider that the F-22 Raptor fighter is now entering service after 22 years of development.
But the whole idea still rings of science fiction, and the question is whether its proponents can corral the various technologies together to make the project possible. "Sustain is not a pipe dream," Lafontant says. "It just needs to gel."
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