Starship prototype SN10 fires its three Raptor engines as it comes in for landing.
The U.S. Air Force said Friday it was expanding a small development program that would use reusable rockets, such as the one SpaceX is building, to deliver cargo quickly anywhere in the world.
The experimental military program, called Rocket Cargo, will be led by the US space force, the Pentagon said. The program will research and help develop capabilities such as landing “a missile on a wide variety of non-traditional materials and surfaces”, designing “a rocket cargo bay and logistics for rapid loading and unloading” and dropping “cargo from the missile after reentry to serve locations where a missile or aircraft would be impossible to land.”
The Air Force’s 2022 budget proposal called for nearly $50 million for Rocket Cargo to continue the study concept work it began last year with small contracts to SpaceX and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc).
Rocket Cargo effectively describes the Starship rockets that SpaceX is developing, as the military program will look at fully reusable private rockets that can launch between 30 and 100 tons. Currently, Starship is the only rocket in development that plans to be both reused and capable of launching this much mass.
Point-to-point space travel is a form of transportation in which a rocket is launched into space and then returns to another location, hypothetically making it capable of carrying supplies or possibly people from one side of the Earth to another in a short span of time. hour.
SpaceX has tested prototypes of Starship at its Texas facility, most recently landing and recovering prototype SN15 after a high-altitude flight test. While SpaceX is aiming for a feat no previous rocket has achieved — rapidly repurposing rockets to make spaceflight more like air travel, rather than the traditional approach of discarding the rocket after launch — the latest high-altitude flight test was the first to finish without the prototype exploding. The company has yet to reach space with the rocket.
dr. Greg Spanjers, the leader of the Air Force Research Laboratory in the Rocket Cargo program, cited NASA’s Human Landing Systems program competition as an example of companies working on “viable” options of the Rocket Cargo capacity. That NASA program, which aims to build lunar landers that will take the crew to the lunar surface, consisted of three teams led by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Leidos’ subsidiary Dynetics. But Spanjers said the Air Force has “talked to many more companies” about the Rocket Cargo program.
“We have spoken with a number of providers that we may see coming to the table to compete for these contracts,” Spanjers said on Friday. “SpaceX is certainly the most visible, no doubt about it… [but] what you’re trying to do is go into an orbital or sub-orbital trajectory, bring the charge back down and land it on planet Earth. There are several companies today that have that technology capability, not just SpaceX.”
The Air Force declined to specify which companies it has spoken to about the Rocket Cargo program, with Spanjers saying it is not “appropriate” before the Pentagon begins the contract process. The contract solicitation is scheduled to begin very soon, although the Air Force declined to give a date.
In addition, the Air Force is willing to consider Rocket Cargo companies that are not yet developing point-to-point fully reusable capacity.
“Today we are going to build the interfaces and the passageways to encourage more and more companies to enter that realm. Hopefully they will see a return on investment, in a business case approved by the [Department of Defense] show interest in purchasing the service later,” said Spanjers.
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