Companies that have so far sought to join the military in exploring ways to make the idea a reality include Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and, most recently, Rocket Lab, according to a press release on Tuesday.
Essentially, the lineup is a who’s-who of the “new space” business sector – relatively young rocket companies already shaking up the business of putting cheaper satellites into orbit.
But these deals with the military are something different. Rather than rockets leaving their cargo in Earth orbit, this program aims to use them to transport weapons, supplies or perhaps even people from one country to another at speeds far exceeding those of other types of transport. .
And that’s because rockets have a speed advantage over airplanes. Rockets that can fire into the upper atmosphere have much less air to pass through as they fly over the planet. With less air pulling them back, they can go much faster than something that needs air to move, like a jet. The trade-off, however, is that rockets tend to be much more expensive than planes.
“Imagine traveling from the continental United States to anywhere in the Pacific Rim and measuring your transit time in minutes,” reads an August press release from the United States Transportation Command. army. “Imagine the United States providing assistance to an ally in need of disaster relief, or fighting an adversary planning provocative actions against U.S. national interests at rocket speed.”
It’s an idea similar to that employed by the world’s largest armies for decades, that of the intercontinental ballistic missile. But while these are designed to smash into Earth at hypersonic speeds when they reach their target, the idea here is for the payload to come in for a soft landing.
The contracts fall under a program run by the Air Force Research Laboratory, simply called “Rocket Cargo.” And it’s one of the Department of the Air Force’s four “Vanguard programs,” which are high-level projects intended for accelerated development.
The Army’s current investment in the program is “low,” according to a May statement from Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary Kristen Baldwin, though the goal is for the Army to influence “early commercial design efforts and leverages ongoing industry and NASA investments of $5-10 billion.” .”
The idea of using rockets for point-to-point travel on Earth is not new. SpaceX, for example, announced that its next Starship rocket could be used to fly paying customers from New York to Shanghai in 40 minutes.
This option is still a long way off for consumers. And generally speaking, point-to-point rockets are still a distant goal. Travel would be extremely expensive and technologically and geopolitically complicated. (After all, there aren’t a ton of compelling reasons to transport people or goods from place to place at breakneck speeds.) But with current trends in the booming commercial space industry, some think it is inevitable. The hypersonic passenger travel market could be a $20 billion-a-year industry, UBS estimated in 2019.
And the Army’s goal with the Rocket Cargo program, which was first announced last year, is to get involved early in these efforts in the hopes of being able to quickly put this technology to work for states. States and their allies when it becomes available.
“Logistics speed is at the heart of military supremacy. If a commercial company is in advanced development for a new capability to move materiel faster, then [the Department of Defense] must commit early and seek to be early adopters,” according to the program’s website.
For its part, Rocket Lab plans to use its new deal with the military to explore ways to use its Electron rocket – which the company hopes will also be reusable if it can figure out how to capture it with a helicopter in flight. post-launch – to ferry cargo around the Earth as well as a larger, upcoming rocket called Neutron.
Additionally, the company hopes to explore how it could use its Photon spacecraft to establish “cargo depots” in Earth orbit that will have the ability to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and deliver needed supplies to a targeted area, according to a press release.