A newThe 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 said on Friday.
While SpaceX is the only company currently launching orbit-class rockets capable of landing and reusing them, Greg Spanjers, Rocket Cargo program director at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said several companies have the technology in place. or actively developed it.
In addition, a rocket does not necessarily have to land to deliver critical cargo. It could simply “air-drop” material after reaching its destination anywhere in the world.
“This idea has been around since the dawn of spaceflight,” Spanjers told reporters at a virtual panel discussion. “It’s always been an interesting and intriguing idea (but) it never really made sense in the past.”
Now with the advent offrom SpaceX and planned vehicles from Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance and other companies, the industry produces “rockets of much greater capacity at a cost much lower than what we are used to seeing.”
“We’re getting better in this country at building rockets after several decades of doing it, and reusability also lowers the cost per launch.… So that’s an intriguing opportunity. The reason we’re doing it now is because it looks like technology maybe caught up with a good idea. “
As part of the Air Force’s 10-year science and technology strategy, Rocket Cargo will be the first such “Vanguard” initiative led by Space Force.
The Air Force research lab will study the ability of existing and future rockets to land “on a wide range of non-traditional materials and surfaces, including remote sites,” according to an Air Force statement.
In addition, AFRL scientists and engineers will research the ability to safely land a rocket near personnel and structures, design a rocket bay and logistics for rapid loading and unloading and the air drop of the rocket after reentry to serve locations where a rocket or aircraft cannot land.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are partially reusable with first stages that can return to the tail first, rocket-propelled landings at the launch site or on offshore drones, depending on payload weight, operational requirements. mission and available thruster.
The company’s planned super-heavy Starship rocket features an upper stage that could be launched and then land at destinations around the world depending on its final configuration.
, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is designing a rocket called New Glenn that also includes a reusable first stage while the United Launch Alliance is building a new booster known as the Vulcan that will eventually incorporate reusable motors.
“We don’t see SpaceX as the only viable provider of this capability,” Spanjers said. Without naming any companies, he said a “number of suppliers” should compete for study contracts.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want to end up with just one company anyway, we want to put TRANSCOM (United States Transportation Command) in a position where, when looking to transport goods, the use of rockets becomes. another mode of transport. And then they can switch between different providers. “
As for the types of material rockets that could be used to deliver, he noted that the current generation rockets rival the lifting capabilities of the C-17 cargo planes.
“If you have a very, very large rocket, the amount of missions you can carry on a flight becomes much more appealing,” Spanjers said. “We are looking at rockets with a potential capacity of 30 to 100 tonnes. Note that 100 tonnes is roughly the size of a load of C-17s.
“This is when it starts to get really interesting for the DOD. The cost per pound to transport it goes down as the rockets get bigger.”
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.”