(Wired) Hey, 550 miles per hour is just too slow. And a 1,500-mile range just isn’t big enough. The Tomahawk cruise missile may seem fast and far-reaching. But Pentagon planners want more. Late last week, they handed out contracts to 10 firms to start designing a hypersonic missile that can outrun the now-retired Concorde, and can hit a terrorist nest in Europe from the East Coast.
The Falcon (PDF), or Force Application and Launch from the Continental United States, project aims to fire a bunker-busting bomb into near-space, and then send it crashing into a target more than 3,000 miles away, at four times the speed of sound.
Speed is becoming an increasingly crucial component of how American forces fight. In the Gulf War, it took days for the U.S. military to identify a target and put a bomb on it. In recent engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, that process was cut to as little as 20 minutes, in some cases.
But this quick response only happens when there are bombers and cruise missiles in the immediate neighborhood. If U.S. forces receive a tip that terrorists are in a part of the world where they don’t have American planes in the sky, it can take hours, or days, to act on that information.
With its proposed speed and range, the Falcon project — co-sponsored by the Air Force and Darpa, the Pentagon’s research arm — aims to make just about the whole world a dangerous place to be a bad guy.
“When Osama’s bad brother Larry shows up suddenly in Niger, this is something we can target him with immediately,” said Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.
There are political calculations behind Falcon as well. The U.S. military may have bases all around the world today. But tomorrow, the global community may not be as accepting of those installations.
“The current and future international political environment severely constrains this country’s ability to conduct long-range strike missions on high-value, time-critical targets from outside CONUS (the continental United States),” Darpa notes in a presentation to defense contractors.
The military wants Falcon operational by 2010, and is taking a two-step approach to reaching the deadline. The first is to design a cruise missile that can travel at hypersonic velocity, and deliver a 1,000-pound, bunker-busting bomb. The military’s calling this the Common Aero Vehicle, or CAV. But, in order for the CAV to reach its target, it has to be sent to the cusp of space. So the second task is to build a low-cost, easy-to-launch rocket that can get into low-earth orbit in a jiffy. That’s called the Small Launch Vehicle, or SLV.
Right now, putting things into orbit is expensive and time consuming, according to space industry insiders — $25 million or more for 1,000 pounds of freight, with months (if not years) of prep work. With the SLV, the military wants to bring the cost down to about $5 million, with the ability to launch within a few hours, if needed.
The way to reach these goals is by dramatically simplifying the rocket, said Elon Musk, who founded Internet commerce company PayPal and now has started Space Exploration Technologies, an orbital launch venture.
Musk’s idea — which closely mirrors the Darpa guidelines — is to have a two-stage rocket, powered by a single fuel: a blend of liquid-oxygen and kerosene. In contrast, the Pegasus launcher, from Orbital Sciences, uses as many as four stages, and a combination of liquid and solid propellants.
Musk also wants to prepare for these launches in the laboratory, not on the big service towers commonly used today. A lab’s controlled environment should make this preflight work quicker and more reliable, he noted.
“You don’t do final assembly of airplanes on the runway, and there’s a reason,” Musk said.
But while Musk said Falcon could be “the rare space program that comes in less time and for less money than originally budgeted,” this is all talk, for now. Musk won’t actually put his rocket to the test until a first launch early next year, which will carry a Navy communication and observation satellite into orbit.
The history of the military space program weighs against an easy deployment. Earlier this year, the Defense Science Board found in a report (PDF) “systemic problems” in the Pentagon’s space efforts, including “unrealistic budgets and unexecutable programs,” and inadequate staff “to manage the technologically demanding and unique aspects of space programs.”
If that trend is bucked, a few preliminary flight tests for the Falcon project’s SLV could come around the middle of next year, said Livingston Holder, a vice president at Andrews Space, which received one of the Falcon contracts. This quick testing time frame is a switch for the Pentagon. Holder noted that most big military aerospace projects — the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, for example — take “years of computer modeling and PowerPoint presentations” before anything’s put in the air.
By 2010, the Pentagon wants to begin launching 20 SLVs a year for 10 years, to deliver the weapons and low-earth-orbit satellites.
But this is only the beginning of the Falcon project. In the long-term, Darpa and the Air Force aim to send the hypersonic CAV cruise missiles not by rocket, but by an ultra-fast drone aircraft. This unmanned plane, dubbed the Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle, would take off and land from a military airport, travel more than 10,000 miles in less than two hours, and deliver 12,000 pounds worth of CAVs or sensors. The Pentagon wants the drone carrier in service by 2025.
ED: My don’t we have our Christmas list all worked out, grin. If they can get these things to deliver pizza globally, sign me up as an investor!