SpaceX Wins $102 Million Air Force Contract to Demonstrate Point-to-Point Space Transportation Technologies

Program Manager Greg Spanjers: “The DoD is very interested in the ability to deliver cargo anywhere on Earth to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief”

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has awarded SpaceX a five-year, $102 million contract to demonstrate technologies and capabilities to transport military cargo and humanitarian aid around the world on a heavy rocket.

The contract is for the Rocket Cargo Program, a new project led by the Air Force Research Laboratory to study the utility of using large commercial rockets for Department of Defense global logistics.

Rocket cargo program manager Greg Spanjers said in a statement to SpaceNews that the contract formalizes a government-industry partnership to help “determine exactly what a rocket can achieve when used for cargo transport, what is the true capacity, speed and cost of the integrated system”.

The contract, awarded Jan. 14, was unannounced by the Air Force and was first reported by AviationWeek.com.

This is the largest contract awarded to date for rocket freight. The US Transportation Command in 2020 signed cooperative research and development agreements with SpaceX and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc) to study rapid transport concepts in space. Last month, the order also signed a CRADA with Blue Origin.

The contract is not specific to any of SpaceX’s launch vehicles. The AFRL will have access to SpaceX’s commercial orbital launches and booster landings to collect key data on environment signatures and performance. SpaceX will also provide cargo bay designs that support fast loading and unloading and are compatible with US TRANSCOM intermodal containers. The contract also includes an option for a full demonstration of heavy cargo transport and landing.

“Commercial providers are considering fixed point-to-point transport to established locations, a commercial service that we are certainly interested in purchasing once available,” Spanjers said. He said the DoD was “very interested in the ability to deliver cargo anywhere on Earth to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

However, many regions where disasters occur do not have commercial spaceports. “So we are exploring a wider range of new trajectories to mitigate overflight issues, exploring a wider range of landing options for austere sites, looking for human factors when landing near populations, and integrating a range broader freight, including medical supplies,” he said. .

SpaceX and the Air Force will explore the use of intermodal containers compatible with other modes of transportation delivery.

Spanjers said there is no specified timeline for a demonstration at this point. “AFRL will leverage multiple commercial demo launches over the next few years to collect the data,” he said. The Air Force “does not pilot this schedule but rather collects data whenever SpaceX conducts relevant missions.”

A full demonstration of heavy-lift capability to another location on Earth could be attempted in a few years, but that has yet to be decided.

“Major heavy cargo from orbit has never been attempted before,” Spanjers said. “This will fully test the commercial thermal protection system, landing propulsion and landing legs.”

The Air Force plans to bring other companies into the program over time, he said. “We continue to talk to other launcher suppliers and will consider awarding additional contracts later in the program.”

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