Yes, the military is serious about rocketing supplies around the planet


Smoke and flame surround a squat rocket as it lifts off.
Enlarge / A SpaceX Starship prototype takes flight in April, 2021.

The Air Force confirmed a strong interest in delivery of cargo around the world—by rockets—during an hourlong conference call with reporters on Friday. Military officials said they were elevating the cargo initiative to become the newest “Vanguard Program,” indicating a desire to move the concept from an experimental state into an operational capability.

“This idea has been around since the dawn of spaceflight,” said Dr. Greg Spanjers, an Air Force scientist and the Rocket Cargo Program Manager. “It’s always been an intriguing idea. We’ve looked at it about every 10 years, but it’s never really made sense. The reason we’re doing it now is because it looks like technology may have caught up with a good idea.”

Ars first reported about the “Rocket Cargo” program in the Air Force’s budget request on Monday. As part of its $200 billion annual budget, the Air Force is seeking $47.9 million to leverage emerging commercial rocket capabilities to launch cargo from one location and land elsewhere on Earth.

During Friday’s call, the officials explained what they’re looking for in more depth. “Fundamentally, a rocket can get around the world in 90 minutes, and an airplane cannot,” Spanjers said.

Rockets, therefore, have the potential to fulfill a long-held logistics dream of very rapid, point-to-point cargo delivery. About 95 percent of military supplies are delivered by commercial rail, airplane, and boat services, so this would be an extension of that logistics service.

The military officials said they would issue a solicitation to industry in the “very, very near future” that would not set out specific requirements. Rather, the Air Force will ask for a general capability to rapidly load and launch cargo at one location and deliver it to another location. The “how” of doing this would be left to private companies and their own launch systems. With the solicitation, the military wants to signal that there is a potential Department of Defense market for rocket cargo delivery and to begin to understand the technology needed to interface with these launch capabilities.

Officials took pains during the call to not single out any one company as a potential provider of services. However, the grandiose aims of the rocket cargo program, seeking to move as much as 100 tons at a time, would seem to limit the number of potential suppliers. It points most directly to SpaceX and its under-development Starship capability. SpaceX has said it is capable of launching 100 tons to orbit and then vertically landing back on Earth.

“When a rocket can only launch, you know, a few 100 kilograms or maybe even 1,000 kilograms, it’s interesting but not game changing,” Spanjers said. “It’s the fact that we’re looking at commercial rockets out there that are in the 30 to 100 ton class.”

He added that the military is interested in commercial rockets—that is, those built by industry, largely through private investment—that incorporate reuse to keep costs down. This would seem to limit the vendors in the near term to SpaceX and potentially Blue Origin, with its reusable New Glenn vehicle.

Asked to confirm that the Air Force has spoken directly with SpaceX and Blue Origin about the program, Spanjers declined to do so. However, he added, “I will tell you we’ve talked to many more companies than that. And even if a company doesn’t have that capability today, we are going to build the interfaces and the inroads to encourage more and more companies to enter into that realm, hopefully because they perceive a return on investment.” He and other officials said the military would like to have more than one provider.

Concept design for Air Force Rocket Cargo program.
Enlarge / Concept design for Air Force Rocket Cargo program.

U.S. Air Force

It seems clear that defense leaders are eager to be an early adopter of these technologies. Officials said the Department of Defense would even consider buying initial launches at a reduced price to both support the companies’ test programs as well as to test logistics materials and procedures.

And while, initially, cargo-carrying rockets probably would land at existing spaceports or runways, that need not always be the case. One day, such urgent rocket deliveries might land anywhere on the planet, rugged terrain or not, Spanjers said. He noted that rockets, after all, have landed on the Moon.

“If they can land in those places, we’re interested in knowing to what extent we can extend that to a larger range of terrains on Earth, so that we can do immediate cargo transports to basically anywhere on the planet quickly,” he said.



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