When then Marine Lieutenant Colone Roosevelt Lafontant first started pushing the idea of a space plane for the U.S. Marine Corps in 2002, skeptics didn't even bother to suppress their laughter. But now, with a Concept of Operations (CONOPS)—a formal military document that lays out how a particular weapon system would be used—and a completed, but not yet released Pentagon road map for the technology, people are beginning to take note of the Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion, or SUSTAIN, the notional concept of a Marine space plane.
"Then the laughing subsided," says Lafontant, who now works at Schafer Corporation. "People were really talking about it, and then it got serious. Then we finally got a CONOPS; the laughter stopped completely, and people started jumping on the technology bandwagon."
After decades of unsuccessful development, military space planes are finally getting some respect. On April 19 the U.S. Air Force plans to launch the X-37B, an unmanned space plane that will circle the planet a classified number of times before making an autonomous landing. (Popular Mechanics profiled the effort as the magazine's cover story in April.) The idea of a pop-up reconnaissance platform, to be used if a satellite is not available or is disabled, is an importantrationale for the Air Force's project.
The Marines' space plane takes the Corps' slogan of "first to fight" to the extreme: It could transport a squad of Marine riflemen to anyplace on earth within 2 hours, and then extract them after their mission is complete. Though the goal is appealing—imagine delivering well-armed Marines at hypersonic speed to a suspected Osama bin Laden hideout or besieged embassy—the concept seemed outlandish to many when it was first proposed.
But as strange as sending Marines into space might sound, it would not be the first time that the Marine Corps has succeeded in pushing a seemingly impossible aircraft. It was, after all, the Marine Corps that pushed the V-22, a tilt-rotor aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and lands like an airplane, over the objections of skeptics, even keeping it alive when then defense secretary Dick Cheney tried to kill it.
Similar to the V-22, the concept of the Marine space plane has been driven by ardent supporters, and not always with the full support of their superiors. Along with Lafontant, Franz Gayl, the Marine Corps science and technology advisor, has been another driving force behind the concept. Though it's not part of his official portfolio, Gayl has dedicated his spare time to shepherding the concept to completion. The Pentagon's National Security Space Office is now putting the finishing touches on a road map for the space plane....