U.S. Military Bets On Fledgling Rocket Transportation Industry

Artist’s concept of rocket cargo
Humanitarian aid and disaster relief are among potential Rocket Cargo missions.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

The Pentagon is looking to revolutionize the logistics world by providing seed funding to prove a rocket cargo transport concept that envisions delivering goods to any location on Earth in 1 hr. 

Rocket cargo transportation is not a new research area, but the U.S. military may actually make it a reality. Over the past 50 years, scientists have discussed the concept, but analysis showed the cost was too high and outweighed the benefits.

  • Rockets may resupply troops in future battles
  • 100-ton reusable commercial rockets make the idea plausible

Former Air Mobility Command chief Gen. (ret.) Carlton Everhart proposed the idea a few years ago and was met with criticism. But now that companies such as SpaceX have made reusable rockets a reality, the military is looking to harness this technology for its own use cases.

“I was frankly one of the scoffers at the time because we’ve looked at this for many, many decades, and it’s never made sense,” Greg Spanjers, Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Rocket Cargo program manager says. “There are some key things here that have changed. If you have a very, very large rocket, the amount . . . you can transport in one flight becomes more attractive.”

Some remain skeptical because although the concept may make sense from a pricing perspective, it would be difficult for a potential adversary such as China or Russia to determine whether a rocket is being used for cargo or for a nefarious purpose.

The AFRL is requesting $47.9 million in the fiscal 2022 budget to invest in the science and technology necessary to interface 30-100-ton commercial rocket technology with Defense Department logistics needs, according to budget justification documents. The idea is that the Pentagon will eventually enter into service agreements with commercial rocket providers as it does with commercial airlines.

Mark Lewis, who was the acting deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering during the Trump administration, tells Aviation Week that rocket cargo is a project in which he would not have invested during fiscal 2022 because that funding could be used for items that took a hit in the budget request, such as basic research.

Spanjers says 100 tons is about the size of a C-17 loadout, which makes the idea of rocket cargo intriguing to the Pentagon: The cost per pound to transport equipment decreases as the rocket gets larger.

“We also have multiple companies that are using their own money to develop varied aspects of reentry systems that allow you to get the global reach to return the payload anywhere on the planet,” Spanjers says.

The AFRL outlines two use cases for rocket cargo transportation. The first is two-way global logistics between launchpads. The military uses commercial industry to transport cargo around the world, including air, land and sea services between established sites. For space transport, the military envisions having established launchpads all over the globe.

The Rocket Cargo program work will focus on loadmaster designs that will allow military personnel to quickly load and unload the rocket. Other research areas include rapid launch capabilities from nontraditional sites, types of landing surfaces, adversary detectability, novel trajectories and the ability to airdrop a payload for reentry, according to budget justification documents.

The AFRL is closely partnering with U.S. Transportation Command because rocket cargo may ultimately support the resupply mission. Potential mission applications include special airlift to deliver equipment needed to quickly restore a loss of mission operations, and humanitarian aid and disaster relief payloads.

In these scenarios, a commercial rocket would launch from an established launchpad and land at a remote site with limited logistics infrastructure. The cargo would then be unloaded without ground support, either autonomously or by personnel and equipment transported on the rocket. After unloading cargo, the rocket could then be refueled and relaunched or returned by another transport mode to a launchpad.

Under the Rocket Cargo program, AFRL has created the Rocket Experimentation for Global Agile Logistics (REGAL) project to support the effort with multiple proof-of-concept demonstrations in 9-33 months with a price tag of up to $25 million apiece. The REGAL program is open to receiving white papers until June 1, 2027, that propose ground testing and analysis, a single rocket launch, flight and landing, or multiple launch experiments demonstrating flight and landing operations separately.

“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,” says Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth.

Lee Hudson

Based in Washington, Lee covers the Pentagon for Aviation Week. Prior to joining Aviation Week in June 2018, Lee was at Inside Defense where she was managing editor for Inside the Navy.

Comments

1 Comment
Sounds like someone in the Building dusted off the project ICARUS file.