A rocket delivery service could arrive at an air force near you
The Air Force Department believes its long-term dream of delivering cargo to land at lightning-fast speeds using rockets launched into space may actually be achievable in the near future.
The service launches Rocket Cargo as the fourth pioneering program to deliver game-changing capabilities to advance the service members’ combat advantage.
“The rocket freighter is envisioned as a Defense Ministry interface with commercial capabilities, where we deliver up to 100 tonnes of cargo anywhere on the planet within tactical time frames,” the general told reporters on Friday. Division Heather Pringle, Air Force Research Lab Commander. “This new vanguard has the support of the entire Air Force department and, if successful, will be matched with the right team to transfer it to the fighters.”
One hundred tons is roughly the same amount of cargo space as a C-17.
“Rapid logistics underpin our ability to project power,” said General Arnold Bunch, chief of Air Force Materiel Command. “This is the fundamental motivation for launching the Rocket Cargo program. We are seeing its first applications in rapidly restoring the operational capability of forward forces in austere environments, as well as dramatically reducing the time required to deliver critical humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The program will rely heavily on business partners, as space companies are already very interested in re-entry rockets. The Air Force plans to meet the industry schedule and not enforce program requirements. Instead, the service will allow the private sector to continue to develop the technology and then work in the Space and Missile Center and the Air Force Research Laboratory to have military applications ready as soon as the commercial side is ready.
This includes finding ways to pre-certify cargoes and containers to speed up the packing process, find ways to speed up the logistics of packing and unpacking cargo, and even considering the possibility of using rockets to quickly deploy troops.
The Air Force assumes that companies will develop landing pads around the world, but the service would also like to investigate the possibility of landing rockets in austere environments that could provide capabilities to almost anywhere on the planet.
Air Force officials have said they would like to use multiple vendors for the process, and not just SpaceX, which has successfully performed re-entry launches.
The dream of a land-based rocket-based cargo delivery system has been around for decades, but the service now believes that higher capacities and lower costs have made it much more achievable.
“People always wonder why we are revisiting this idea. This idea has been around since the dawn of spaceflight, it has always been an intriguing idea. We review it about every 10 years and it never really made sense in the past, ”said Greg Spanjers, Rocket Cargo Program Manager. “What has changed is a major emergence on the commercial side with rockets of much higher capacity at a cost much lower than what we are used to seeing.”
At this point, companies are using their own money for re-entry systems and the DoD does not have to make the initial investment.
The Air Force also plans to partner with the US Transportation Command, which is looking for land reentry capabilities. The Combatant Command is already working with SpaceX to outsource re-entry flights.
“Think about moving the equivalent of a C-17 payload anywhere on the globe in less than an hour,” TRANSCOM commander Gen. Stephen Lyons said last October. “Think about this speed associated with the movement of the transport of goods and people. There’s a lot of potential here and I’m really excited about the team working with SpaceX on an opportunity, maybe even, as young as 21, to perform a proof of principle.
TRANSCOM uses cooperative research and development agreements to facilitate interagency and commercial work on the project.