USAF wants to deliver cargo around the world with reusable rockets

SpaceX Starship launch vehicle 07062021
SpaceX Starship launch vehicle 07062021

The US Air Force has announced the development of a new type of rocket-powered transporter to deliver cargo around the world.

The Air Force Research Laboratory will determine whether large commercial rockets like SpaceX's Starship launch vehicle could be used for Department of Defense global logistics.

AFRL will research and develop the aspects needed to leverage the new commercial capability for the DoD logistics mission. This includes the ability to land a rocket on a wide range of non-traditional materials and surfaces, including at remote sites.

In addition, AFRL scientists and engineers will research the ability to safely land a rocket near personnel and structures, engineer a rocket cargo bay and logistics for rapid loading and unloading, and air drop cargo from the rocket after re-entry in order to service locations where a rocket or aircraft cannot possibly land.

A USAF illustration of the Rocket Cargo concept, which bears a striking resemblance to SpaceX's Starship design

“The Air Force has provided rapid global mobility for decades and Rocket Cargo is a new way the Department can explore complementary capabilities for the future,” said acting secretary of the Air Force John Roth. “Vanguard initiatives lead to game-changing breakthroughs that preserve our advantage over near-peer competitors, and this latest addition is also a significant milestone as the first Vanguard evaluated under the Space Force’s oversight.”

Based on the commercial capability and business objectives, the AFRL is currently assessing emerging rocket capability across the commercial vendor base, and its potential use for quickly transporting DoD materiel to ports across the globe.

“The Rocket Cargo Vanguard is a clear example of how the Space Force is developing innovative solutions as a service, in particular the ability to provide independent options in, from, and to space,” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond. “Once realized, Rocket Cargo will fundamentally alter the rapid logistics landscape, connecting materiel to joint warfighters in a fraction of the time it takes today. In the event of conflict or humanitarian crisis, the Space Force will be able to provide our national leadership with an independent option to achieve strategic objectives from space.”

Historically the high costs of launch have been prohibitive for a logistics-focused application, and the relatively small payload capability constrained the types of cargo that could be delivered, also limiting its suitability. Today several commercial companies are quickly generating new opportunities by developing large rockets and reusable stages that safely land back on earth, expanding cargo capacity and dramatically reducing launch costs.

Under the new Rocket Cargo Vanguard, the DAF will seek to leverage these commercial advances and position the DoD to be an early adopter of the new commercial capability.

This approach is a marked departure from the past, where the US government led rocket technology development and bore the brunt of the cost. Today, with the commercial space launch providers developing the advanced rockets, the DAF will instead primarily invest to quickly adapt the capability to the DoD logistics missions, and then be the first customer procuring the new commercial capability through service leases.



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