Last December, around the time that Congress passed and President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes unexpected step to stem coronavirus Democrats start hinting Sanders should drop out Coronavirus disrupts presidential campaigns MORE signed into law the legislation that created the United States Space Force, SpaceX CEOElon Musk tweeted, Starfleet begins.
Musks tweet was put down to an excess of exuberance. For the foreseeable future, the closest that Space Force personnel will get to war fighting in space will be sitting at consoles controlling satellites and space-based weapons systems. No one is going to stride the bridge of the Starship Enterprise for a very long time.
But it seems that Musk was in earnest. Recently,according to Space.com, he was engaged in a fireside chat at a meeting of the Air Force Associations Air War Symposium taking place in Orlando, Florida. He spoke at length on the need for rapid innovation so that the United States can stay ahead of its nearest rival, China, in dominating the high frontier of space.
In order to really foster the kind of innovation that is needed, Musk stated, We gotta make Star Fleet happen. He went on to suggest that while warp drive and transporters are still a long way away, there could be --big spaceships that can go far places? Definitely. That can be done."
What sort of big spaceships one might ask? It happens that Musk is working on one at a growing facility at Boca Chica, Texas, near Brownsville. In keeping with the Star Trek theme, the vehicle is called the Starship. It will be a reusable space vehicle, launched into space by a first stage called the Super Heavy. With refueling, the Starship is designed to deliver 100 tons of people and material to the moon or Mars as needed.
Eric Berger at Ars Technica paid a visit to Boca Chica recently.In his account, he describes an operation that is so fast paced that it makes the Apollo race to the moon seem like a leisurely stroll by comparison. Musk is determined to build a fleet of a thousand Starship rockets at a pace of one a week to help fulfill his dream of founding a city on Mars. So far, he is doing that on his own dime, though he would never turn down a contract from NASA or the Space Force, for that matter.
The Starship will be able to do a few other things as well, from providing point-to-point transportation anywhere on Earth to supporting NASAs Project Artemis to establish a base on the moon. Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHillicon Valley: Biden overtakes Sanders in Facebook ad spending for first time | New HHS rules would give patients access to health data | Twitter flags edited Biden video retweeted by Trump SpaceX's Elon Musk wants the Space Force to become Star Fleet Elon Musk: Panic over the coronavirus is 'dumb' MORE suggests that the reusable rocket ship could form the basis of a real-life Star Fleet.
What would the Space Force do with its own fleet of rocket ships? It might use them to, in the near term, learn to operate in space with a view to executing its mission of defending Americas space assets and, if necessary, striking at those of an enemy such as China or Russia.
NASA and other space agencies use spacecraft for one-off exploration missions. It was true during Apollo, and it will be true, at least initially, when Project Artemis becomes reality. The Space Force could develop rocket ships in the same way as every navy has ocean-going ships. The SpaceX Starship could be the very first ship of space to be used over and over again, a sort of space-faring version of the ocean-going galleon that Francis Drake sailed to explore the Americas and to fight the Spanish.
As the role of the United States and her allies in space evolves and grows, so would the Space Forces mission. Moon bases, asteroid mining facilities, space-based manufacturing and Musks dreamed of Mars settlement will need defending.
The Space Force will be not only a war-fighting service, but also a rescue organization, a peace-keeping force and even a space debris collection group. It may eventually take over space exploration duties from NASA or have the entire space agency folded into it.
To use a slightly altered version of a well-known line:
Space, the final frontier, our continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Not to mention make Elon Musk richer than he already is and make the United States the undisputed superpower on and beyond the Earth for the foreseeable future. A marvelous win-win situation, that.
Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitledWhy is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?as well asThe Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs atCurmudgeons Corner.
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