Wired.co.uk: One Giant Leap for Robot Space Marines


Categorie: Research, Space |


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.”

Read the rest at Wired.co.uk.

(Photo: via Wired.co.uk)

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One Response to “Wired.co.uk: One Giant Leap for Robot Space Marines”

  1. ajay says:

    SUSTAIN is the logical next step in the USMC’s centuries-long quest to prove their awesomeness by finding the most difficult and dangerous way possible to insert troops into combat. Let’s lay this out in table form:

    1775: USMC founded. Insertion method: swinging on ropes or climbing ladders onto the decks of enemy ships full of heavily-armed, highly motivated sailors armed with cutlasses, pistols and swivel guns loaded with grapeshot.

    1801: First Barbary War. Marine lieutenants Eaton and O’Bannon identify the need for the Corps to find something more dangerous to do. Their solution: land in small, flimsy boats on the shore of an entire continent full of heavily armed people who hate you. The USMC’s core mission is born.

    1918: The Corps is deployed overseas again, to the Western Front. Briefly stymied by the lack of small, flimsy boats (or, indeed, shores) in their AO, the Marines decide to follow their Allies’ lead and walk very slowly across open ground towards heavily-entrenched German veterans with machine guns. Victory is only a matter of time.

    1942: The Pacific War is in full swing and the Corps joyfully returns to its core mission (see above). At Tarawa atoll, they experiment with a new and even more dangerous technique: take the boats inshore part of the way, until they get stuck, and then wade neck-deep for several hundred yards to the shore. The results are everything they hoped.

    1942-45: the Marines continue to land on successively larger pieces of ground, occupied by successively larger numbers of heavily armed people who hate them. In a moment of inspiration, they adopt the Amphtrac: a piece of USMC genius which combines all the disadvantages of a tank (slow, heavy, doesn’t float very well) with the disadvantages of a landing craft (slow, big, not very well protected). This allows them to keep their heads up in the presence of the Army, who had been rivalling them in the awesomeness stakes due to their adoption of the M3 tank (voted Most Likely To Burst Into Flames by the international panel of judges, 1940-46).

    1950-73: the helicopter arrives. Any machine whose natural state is either a) falling out of the sky or b) coming apart is a natural for the USMC: their delight is increased by the realisation that it will allow their troops to get into horrible places full of people who hate them, even if such places are miles away from the sea (or anything else).

    1990s: the Corps is still disappointed that the helicopter’s range is limited: it begins pushing for tiltrotors, which will allow it to put Marines hundreds of miles away from the sea or anyone who doesn’t hate them.

    2008: even with the V-22, there is still a possibility that Marines might inadvertently end up in an area where everyone doesn’t hate them; SUSTAIN has global reach, which means, effectively, that the Corps can think up the most horrible, remote, heavily armed place in the entire world, send some Marines there, and still have time before lunch to read the paper.

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