The Pentagon wants to rocket troops through space to hot spots anywhere on the globe within two hours, and planners spent two days last month discussing how to do it, military documents show.
Civilian and military officials held a two-day conference at the National Security Space Office to plan development of the Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion (SUSTAIN) program. The invitation to the conference called the notion of space troopers a "potential revolutionary step in getting combat power to any point in the world in a timeframe unachievable today." Attendees included senior Army, Marine, Navy and Air Force officers.
The next steps toward getting troops in space: addressing the technological challenges and seeking input from the military, said Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Brown, a space office spokesman. No further meetings have been scheduled.
Marines launched the concept after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. They needed the "capability to transport small, mission-tailored units through space from any point on the globe to a contingency at any other point on the globe" within minutes of an order, according to a Marine document.
Some critics are skeptical. The concept defies physics and the reality of what a small number of lightly armed troops could accomplish in enemy territory, said John Pike, a military analyst who runs Globalsecurity.org.
"This isn't even science fiction," Pike said. "It's fantasy."
Private rocket pioneer Burt Rutan says the plan is technologically possible. Rutan's SpaceShipOne was the first privately financed vehicle to carry people into space. It won the $10 million "X Prize" in 2004 for flying into space twice in five days.
"This has never been done," Rutan said in an e-mail. "However, it is feasible. It would be a relatively expensive way to get the troops on the ground, but it could be done."
Terrorist threats to the United States, according to a statement of need from the Marines in July 2002, can emerge quickly anywhere in the world. A nearly instantaneous response from a small contingent of troops could snuff them out. Rocketship forces could also rescue troops trapped behind enemy lines.
"In the end, events around the globe can unfold much more rapidly and in many circumstances call for the earliest intervention if larger conflicts or other negative international implications are to be averted," the statement says. "Space transport and insertion is the only means of attaining the needed speed of response."
The need to develop technology to get SUSTAIN off the ground was restated in 2005 in a Marine document called the Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare Capability List. The list, signed by Gen. James Mattis, presented the space program as a goal to be realized as early as 2019. Mattis, who took over the Joint Forces Command last year, declined to comment.
Flying troops through space to distant crises is an idea that's been discussed since the early 1960s. In a speech in 1963, Marine Gen. Wallace Greene said such flight could have a "staggering" impact on projecting U.S. power. Greene, later the Marine Corps commandant, hoped to have Marines in space by 1968.
Emerging technology makes SUSTAIN a possibility, perhaps by 2030, said Baker Spring, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation. Just as important, he said, is determining what troops could do if they managed to rocket into a crisis.
Another issue: vehicles must be relatively light to reach space. "It would be wildly vulnerable," said Ivan Oelrich, a security analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "You can't armor a rocket ship."
Pike said an enormous amount of fuel would be needed to return from such missions. He questioned what 13 troops could accomplish in a hostile environment without getting killed or captured.