US military rocket program for SpaceX spacecraft and others

The SN10 prototype spacecraft fires its three Raptor engines upon landing.


The US Air Force is expanding a small development program that wants to take advantage of reusable rockets, like the ones SpaceX is building, to quickly deliver goods to anywhere in the world.

Dubbed Rocket Cargo, the experimental military program will be led by the US Space Force, the Pentagon announced on Friday. The program will research and help develop capabilities such as “rocket landing on a wide range of non-traditional materials and surfaces”, design “rocket bay and logistics for loading and rapid unloading “and airdrop rocket after reentry to serve places where a rocket or plane cannot land,” the Air Force said.

The Air Force’s 2022 draft budget requested nearly $ 50 million for Rocket Cargo, to continue the study concept work he started last year with small contracts with SpaceX and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc).

Rocket Cargo effectively describes the Starship rockets SpaceX is developing, as the military program will be looking at fully reusable private rockets that can launch between 30 and 100 tons. Notably, SpaceX’s leadership in previous years has showcased point-to-point space travel as one of Starship’s capabilities.

Point-to-point space travel is a form of transportation, in which a rocket would launch into space and then return to another location, making it hypothetically capable of bringing supplies or possibly people to one side of the world. Earth to another within an hour.

SpaceX has tested Starship prototypes at its facility in Texas, and recently landed and recovered the SN15 prototype after a high-altitude flight test. While SpaceX aims to accomplish a feat no previous rocket has achieved – quickly reuse rockets to make spaceflight closer to air travel, instead of the traditional approach of throwing the rocket after launch – The last high altitude flight test was the first that ended without the prototype exploding. The company has yet to reach orbit with the rocket.

Dr Greg Spanjers, head of the Air Force’s Rocket Cargo program research lab, gave NASA’s Human Landing Systems program support as an example of companies working on “viable” options for Rocket Cargo capability. . This NASA program, which focuses on building lunar landers that transport crews to the moon’s surface, included three teams: led by SpaceX by Elon Musk, Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos and the Leidos Dynetics affiliate. . But Spanjers said the Air Force had “told a lot more companies than that” about the Rocket Cargo program.

“We have spoken to a number of vendors that we see potentially coming to the table to compete for these contracts,” Spanjers said at a press conference on Friday. “SpaceX is certainly the most visible, there is no doubt… [but] what you’re trying to do is enter an orbital or suborbital path, bring the payload back down, and land it on planet Earth. There are several companies that have this technological capability today, not just SpaceX. “

The Air Force declined to specify which companies it told about the Rocket Cargo program, with Spanjers saying it is not “appropriate” until the Pentagon begins the procurement process. Solicitation of contract is expected to begin very soon, although the Air Force declined to provide a date.

Additionally, the Air Force is willing to consider companies for Rocket Cargo that are not yet developing a fully reusable point-to-point capability.

“Today we will be building the interfaces and breakthroughs to encourage more and more companies to enter this field. Hopefully they see a return on their investment, in a business case endorsed by the [Department of Defense] expressing interest in purchasing the service later, ”Spanjers said.

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