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The Sunday Times sold off another little bit of its credibility at the weekend, as it told the world about the imminent launch of the US Marine Corps into space.

According to the Thunderer:

The American military is planning a “spaceplane” designed to fly a crack squad of heavily armed marines to trouble spots anywhere in the world within four hours.

At a recent secret meeting at the Pentagon, engineers working on the craft, codenamed Hot Eagle, were told to draw up blueprints for a prototype.

Which would be great, if it was true. And it is true that certain enthusiasts in the US Marine Corps have long been toying with the idea of shooting a few good men around the world outside the atmosphere in just a few hours, in a similar fashion to nuclear warheads. The idea is referred to as Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion (SUSTAIN), and has been written up regularly ever since it kicked off. It's also been an internet speculation fave: we particularly like this YouTube vid, in which the US Marines seem to be basing their re-usable first stage design on Richard Branson's space-tourism motherships. (Warning: soundtrack involves young persons' rhythm-combo music of some sort.)

The idea in broad outline is to fire some picked troops - the Marine backers of the idea naturally assume these would be Marines* - into space. They'd ride in some kind of winged or at least controllable re-entry vehicle, a spaceplane of sorts, and fly down to where they were wanted from such a height and speed that they would be well-nigh impossible to shoot down - just like a normal ballistic missile warhead. Video above notwithstanding, you wouldn't be taking main battle tanks with you - the SUSTAIN planners envisage a dozen light infantrymen per ship, tops.

There's nothing technically impossible about SUSTAIN - after all, the US already maintains a rocket fleet able to hurl tons upon tons of atom bombs around the globe on very short notice. A small re-entry vehicle with a squad of troops inside wouldn't be an impossible payload. Manned space missions, indeed, have already carried out far more complex feats. If you really desperately needed to carry out a SUSTAIN mission - to the point of being willing to crash-land and write off a space shuttle - you could do one right now, actually, though it does take NASA a long time to warm up a shuttle. A SUSTAIN ship would probably be more like an ICBM, able to stay at short notice for liftoff for long periods.

The tricky bit would be getting the spaceborne soldiers back again, of course. The SUSTAIN planners are full of wacky ideas for this, many of them involving pickup by some normal aircraft - although if you could get normal aircraft there, one might ask why you really need space troopers to begin with. It's even been suggested that a SUSTAIN lander might be able to take off again after the mission and fly away to safety - which would be a neat trick, even more so without a runway. More realistically, the idea's backers suggest that the troops would have to "hike out" afterwards, or perhaps simply accept that SUSTAIN missions were going to be one-way trips.

In fact, though, the really tough bit about SUSTAIN is trying to think of situations in which it would be useful in proportion to its cost - both in money and almost certainly in troops. That's why the idea has essentially gone nowhere.

But hey - the Times says there's been a "recent secret meeting" at the Pentagon, with engineers ordered to "draw up blueprints". Space troopers will fly "50 miles into space, far above hostile radar" within 11 years, seemingly. That's big news!

Except that the meeting wasn't secret. Nor was it recent: it took place last month, actually. Blueprints were called for, but not spacecraft blueprints, rather CONOPS ones - "Concept of Operations" in military speak. In other words, people went away to try and crack the really hard problem of SUSTAIN, which is thinking of a good reason to bother with it.

Just to round things off, radar can easily see 50 miles into space and often does. The point about being on a high suborbital trajectory is not to fly "above radar", but to fly above the atmosphere and so achieve huge speeds, long ranges and invulnerability to most kinds of weapon. (Enough height can also avoid airspace-violation disputes. However, you could get into international legal hot water for making military use of space, a theoretical no-no.)

The solution to this sort of thing? Well, always check with some solid, respectable news outfit like the Reg if you see a story like this on the less trustworthy parts of the internet or the dead-trees grid. Fringe outlets like the Times occasionally have some interesting stuff, we'd be the first to admit it, but you can't rely on them. ®

Bootnote

*Actually they'd probably have been elbowed aside by the various elites of the Special Operations Command until lately. However the Marines are now belatedly playing the SOCOM (Special Operations Command) game, after years of sneering at the whole idea, so they might be in with a chance these days. As it happens, along with all the ex-military test pilots, there is at least one NASA astronaut with experience as a special-warfare operator.

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