New Air Force/Space Force Program Explores Using Rockets For Cargo

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While most of the attention thrown on SpaceX’s reusable rockets is directed at the moon and planets, an Earthier role could turn out to be pivotal in further developing the technology. The Air Force Rocket Cargo Initiative, a new partnership between the U.S. Air Force and the Space Force, will use what SpaceX and other private companies are learning about space travel to explore delivering military cargo throughout the world. That could expand to carrying personnel once the safety and reliability of the technology is advanced and proven.

Projections are that a current rocket could transport 100 tons (enough to fill a C-17 transport) anywhere on Earth within an hour. And as the reusable rockets advance, commercial operators are bringing down the cost. Greg Spanjers, program manager for the joint project, said, “It looks like the technology might have caught up with a good idea.”

The U.S. Defense Department budget request has allocated $48 million for the initiative, funding that targets adapting the cargo for travel in space and exploring how it can be delivered to remote, inhospitable destinations. If the initiative proves practical, the time and experience gained in establishing regular operations could prove invaluable for further developing the reusable rocket technology.

A potentially challenging stumbling block for using space rockets to descend on random landing sites to deliver cargo, the Air Force acknowledges, is preventing local air defense forces from mistaking them for hostile ballistic missiles that could be carrying nuclear warheads. But according to Dr. Spanjers, “We know how to handle that deconfliction.”

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6 COMMENTS

  1. “It looks like the technology might have caught up with a good idea.”

    It’s actually a stupid idea. SpaceX Rockets (and all liquid fueled rockets) don’t sit around in a ready to launch configuration. It takes days to get them ready to launch and hours to fill with fuel. Cargo could be delivered by conventional military air transport for 5 orders of magnitude less cost and in less real door to door time, than by rocket.

    It was for this same reason the SR-71 was never used for transport, even though it flew at Mach 4.

  2. What happens to the space rockets after they descend on their random landing sites and the cargo is delivered? Does someone expect them to take off again and fly home? Or are they written off where they land? The current SpaceX economics are based on re-using rockets. That comes from landing them somewhere from which they can be moved on the surface to a refurb facility. If you can’t do that, then the one flight needs to absorb the entire cost of the rocket.

    • Re-usability is paramount to the program. Landing only requires a flat spot, where it could sit till a portable launch structure (and fuel) is shipped out by slower means. Such a structure would be a challenge to design, but nothing a competent engineer couldn’t carry out using existing materials, technologies, etc. The market just hasn’t screamed for it [yet].

  3. I wonder why you would land the rocket rather than drop the cargo in a disposable container and shoot the empty rocket back into space before returning home? Maybe dip just low enough the cargo doesn’t have to be protected from burning up?

    I’m likely asking a stupid question, but it seems getting the landing pad and fuel to the destination is a big problem. Maybe they have solved that and that’s why it’s feasible?

    Could be awesome.

  4. I cannot help but comment on this as everyone seems to be missing a detail in their thinking here. To deliver in one hour or less to anywhere on the planet requires velocities nearly high enough to achieve orbit. Therefore, this is a multistage rocket with a booster. Space X’s Starship comes to mind.

    In fact, I think Starship will probably meet these requirements, but the logistics of reusing more than the first stage seems challenging. Honestly, just unloading it after landing sounds challenging.

    The only way I can think that this makes any sense is if they are planning for it to be preloaded with a payload to quickly deliver for some contingency. Otherwise, as Barry pointed out, with the time required to load payload on the rocket, delivering in one hour versus one day (or likely less if there are multiple departure options) doesn’t seem very useful. Delivering to a small, probably concrete or metal surface may be useful. Even if this is their thinking, it still sounds like a waste of time and money to me.