The Pentagon’s plan to put robot Marines in space?

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Roosevelt Lafontant had a dream. A Marine Corps officer assigned to the National Reconnaissance Office at the Pentagon, Lafontant had a back-row seat in late 2001 as the Marines spearheaded the invasion of landlocked Afghanistan. To reach Kandahar from their assault ships, the Marines had to fly more than 400 miles over Pakistan in rickety, heavy-lift helicopters. “There’s got to be a better way,” Lafontant recalled thinking.

There was a better way  —  one involving high technology and even higher ambition. As loopy as it sounded, Lafontant and like-minded officers wanted to send Marines into combat through space. But robots would have gone first.

Lafontant’s original dream, now on hold, was to land squads of troops from near-orbit, using a vehicle he called Sustain, short for “Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion.”

In theory, Sustain could have deployed forces from the U.S. to anywhere in the world in only two hours. By flying at sub-orbital altitudes, Sustain would have been invulnerable to enemy air defenses and would have avoided violating the national airspace of countries bordering the war zone.

As sci-fi as it seemed, Sustain was a dream grounded in reality. In the early 2000s a new civilian space-tourism industry was emerging, revolving around various designs for cheap, two-stage rocket ships, capable of carrying a small number of passengers to an altitude just below the orbital threshold.

The first stage in these designs typically was a large, high-flying mothership aircraft. The mothership would launch a rocket-powered lander capable of reaching extremely high altitudes, then landing like an airplane. In other words, a space-plane.

Lafontant proposed adapting these motherships and space-planes to military missions. As a proof of concept, in October 2004 Burt Rutan’s four-ton SpaceShipOne launched from its WhiteKnight mothership and climbed to nearly 400,000 feet to win the $10-million Ansari X-Prize, a privately-funded competition meant to spur space-tourism development.

Even after SpaceShipOne’s dramatic success, most military planners considered Lafontant’s military space-plane a far-out notion  —  so far-out that many simply laughed when they heard it. But thanks in part to advances in robotics, the laughter soon stopped.

Lafontant’s space-plane got close to becoming reality, albeit in a very different form than he had first imagined. In 2008, the Marines teamed up with the Air Force and Special Operations Command to begin turning Sustain into a platform for deploying unmanned systems, anywhere in the world, on short notice.

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