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Space Force ponders rockets to quickly move critical cargo around the world

A new Space Force program will study the feasibility of using large commercially developed rockets to quickly launch and deliver needed cargoes to military hotspots and other destinations around the world in a fraction of the time, officials announced Friday.

While SpaceX is the only company currently launching orbit-class rockets capable of landing and reuse, Greg Spanjers, manager of the Rocket Cargo program at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said multiple companies have the necessary technology or are actively developing it.

In addition, a rocket would not necessarily have to land to deliver critical cargo. It might simply "air drop" material after reaching its destination anywhere in the world.

An artist's impression of a military cargo rocket after landing at a remote site. The Air Force Research Laboratory is studying the feasibility of using large, commercially-developed rockets to deliver material to destinations anywhere in the world in a fraction of the time needed by more traditional means. U.S. Air Force

"This idea has been around since the dawn of spaceflight," Spanjers told reporters in a virtual roundtable discussion. "It's always been an interesting, intriguing idea (but) it's never really made sense in the past."

Now, with the advent of reusable rockets from SpaceX and planned vehicles from Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance and other companies, industry is producing "much higher capability rockets at a much lower cost point that we're used to seeing."

"We're getting better in this country at building rockets after a number of decades of doing it, and reusability also brings down the cost per launch. ... So it's an intriguing opportunity. The reason we're doing now is because it looks like technology may have caught up with a good idea."

As part of the Air Force's decadal science and technology strategy, Rocket Cargo will be the first such "Vanguard" initiative led by Space Force.

The Air Force Research Laboratory will study the ability of existing and future rockets to land "on a wide range of non-traditional materials and surfaces, including at remote sites," according to an Air Force release.

"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."

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets are partially reusable with first stages that can return to tail first, rocket-powered landings back at the launch site or on off-shore droneships, depending on the weight of the payload, mission requirements and the available propellant.

The company's planned Starship super heavy lift rocket features an upper stage that could launch and then land at destinations around the world depending on its final configuration.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is designing a rocket called New Glenn that also features a reusable first stage while United Launch Alliance is building a new booster known as Vulcan that eventually will incorporate reusable engines.

"We don't see SpaceX as being the only viable provider of this capability," Spanjers said. Without naming any companies, he said a "number of providers" are expected to compete for study contracts.

"At the end of the day, we don't want to end up with one company anyhow, we want to put TRANSCOM (United States Transportation Command) in a position where when they're looking to transport goods, using rockets becomes another mode of transport. And then they can swap between different vendors."

As for what sorts of material rockets might be used to deliver, he noted that current-generation rockets are rivaling the lift capabilities of C-17 cargo jets.

"If you have a very, very large rocket, the amount of mission you can transport on one flight becomes far more attractive," Spanjers said. "We're looking at rockets with 30- to 100-ton potential capacity. Note that 100 tons is about the size of a C-17 loadout.

"So that's when it starts getting very interesting to the DOD. The cost per pound to transport it decreases as the rockets get larger."

The bottom line?

"We're trying to figure out how we put vehicles on a rocket, unload those vehicles and go," Spanjers said. "It's going to be a fun project."

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