The SpaceX Starship spacecraft lifts off from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, on March 14, 2024.

The SpaceX Starship spacecraft lifts off from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, on March 14, 2024. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP via Getty Images

Pentagon eyes Starship, designed for Mars, for military missions somewhat closer to home

After a successful, if abbreviated, third test flight, SpaceX’s reusable mega-rocket might be ready before the U.S. military is.

SpaceX’s Starship made it to orbit before failing on reentry during its Thursday test flight, taking another step toward becoming the biggest space hauler of all time. The reusable mega-rocket, whose third flight was described as a success because it achieved more than the first two, is expected to eventually bring launch costs down even further than has the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, which the Pentagon uses to send most of its satellites into space.  

With a payload capacity of 100 to 150 tons, Starship could carry a bunch of satellites simultaneously and increase the Space Force’s launch rate as it builds out a network of hundreds of satellites in low-Earth orbit. 

“[The] cost to put satellites into orbit is going to drop even more than it already has with the introduction of Starship,” said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Once Starship is operational, it will be able to put things into higher orbits, which is key for the Pentagon’s push to operate in the cislunar environment, the area between the geosynchronous orbit and the moon.

“The Chinese have already begun cislunar operations and have put vehicles on the far side of the moon, which is something the U.S. doesn't really have the ability to do right now,” Clark said. 

However, the advantage the U.S. will get with Starship “won’t last forever,” and it will take years to build satellites specifically designed to take advantage of the rocket’s payload capacity, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

“At this rate, they will have Starship operational this year. We need payloads to go on that, if we're actually going to take advantage of it during this window of opportunity when it's a capability only we have. If you want those payloads available next year, you needed to start building them five years ago,” Harrison said. 

Starship could be used to put very large objects into space, such as fuel barges or energy stations, at a reasonable cost.  

“You could use this to put up an orbital bus that you can then put on and remove payloads from, so you can have a satellite on orbit that's basically a large docking station. You can use it to test or operate various payloads that you were bringing up with smaller launches, so it could be a way to do that kind of thing where you establish essentially an unmanned, little space station that can carry various payloads,” Clark said.

The Pentagon is also potentially eyeing Starship to help move cargo around the world very quickly, filling the role of a C-17 Globemaster, the Pentagon’s airlift workhorse. And one day, it could be used to haul cargo around space, like to various space stations. The Air Force Research Laboratory has been working on this concept through the Rocket Cargo program, which awarded SpaceX a $102 million contract in 2022 to explore using its space launch vehicles for cargo transport. That program is a new start in the Space Force’s 2025 budget request under a new name, “Point to Point Delivery.”

The research and development program will focus “on utilizing vehicles that traverse from or through space to transport DOD materiel anywhere around the world within tactically responsive timelines,” according to budget documents posted after the 2025 budget rollout March 11.

Starship opens the door to using space in new and unconventional ways, such as point-to-point delivery of cargo, said Clayton Swope, senior fellow at CSIS. 

“Because we are so focused sometimes on getting things into space into low-Earth orbit, into GEO, we don't necessarily think of space is kind of this last-mile delivery capability where you could move something in less than an hour, anywhere from a point on Earth to another point on Earth, and you're just kind of using space as that transit point,” Swope said. 

Spacelift is a “real thing” that will be fielded within a few years and have its place alongside sealift and airlift, Harrison said, but it will likely be for “exceptional circumstances” when you need to deliver cargo and crew very quickly. 

“What I'd like to see is go ahead and start experimenting and within a few years, see if you can land something like Starship on a military ship out in the sea, so this would be a form of at sea resupply for very time-sensitive cargo,” Harrison said.