Wired.com has launched a new U.K. edition, edited by Holden Frith. I wrote two pieces for the launch. The first revisits my favorite far-out idea: Space Marines!
In one of Aliens‘ most exciting scenes, Colonial Marines assault the alien-infested planet LV426 from an orbiting spaceship. The ship drops a lander, which swoops to the planet’s surface and deposits an armored vehicle carrying the Marines. The team behind Aliens strove for a high degree of realism, but none of them could have predicted that their imaginary space launcher-lander-vehicle combination would now be close to reality in the form of a U.S. Marine Corps system designed to deploy robotic troops to far-flung regions of our planet.
The inspiration for the Marines’ space lander is partially rooted in Hollywood science fiction like Aliens, but the event that directly spurred the lander’s ongoing development happened nearly nine miles above the Mojave Desert on October 4, 2004. On that day, a twin-engined aircraft called White Knight (pictured) launched a four-ton, egg-shaped craft from its belly, high over the desert. The egg was SpaceShipOne, the world’s first successful, civilian-built space plane, developed along with White Knight by legendary aerospace designer Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites.
In October 2004, SpaceShipOne shot upwards at the speed of a bullet, reaching a height of 70 miles before leveling out just below the orbital threshold and, 20 minutes later, spiralling back to earth with its stubby, foldable wings extended. The altitude-record-setting flight was the ship’s 17th flight since 2003, and the second of two designed to win the $10-million Ansari X-Prize for the first privately built space plane to fly higher than 100km (62 miles) twice in a two-week period.
The goal of the prize was to help jump-start the development of cheap, non-governmental, suborbital travel. Today, partially as a result, there are dozens of companies, big and small, working on hardware similar to SpaceShipOne, with the same goal of carrying tourists close to space. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space-tourism venture, for example, involves aircraft based on SpaceShipOne.
To one U.S. Marine Corps officer who paid close attention to the X-Prize competition, there was another application. Roosevelt Lafontant, a 44-year-old New Yorker, was working in low-level Pentagon space-reconnaissance post when SpaceShipOne came off the drawing board. He saw the suborbital egg-craft as the perfect foundation for a revolutionary new military capability. Using a vehicle similar to SpaceShipOne, the Marines could, in theory, send a 13-man squad anywhere in the world, in just hours. Lafontant called his idea Sustain, short for “Small-Unit Space Transport and Insertion.”
(Photo: via Wired.co.uk)