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Understanding Mars helps rocket cargo on Earth, military official says

New technology could transform concept of rapid logistics for troop deployment, humanitarian aid

Development of spaceships that can operate in the Mars environment is providing lessons for scientists exploring rockets that could deliver cargo across the Earth in an hour, the new head of U.S. Transportation Command recently said.

USTRANSCOM is responsible for surface, maritime and air delivery of equipment and supplies for warfighters using a mix of military assets and industry partners. Rapid advances in technological capabilities are now spurring the military to investigate space transportation as a complementary distribution mode within its supply chain.

The organization in 2020 began executing cooperative research and development agreements with industry and academia to understand use cases, feasibility and cost of hyperfast cargo delivery around the world. In December, Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, entered into an agreement with Transportation Command to explore the possibility of using rockets to transport cargo and people. 

The private sector research hopes to answer questions such as: “How would you stack it? How would you load? How could you … put it on the rocket, take it off the rocket? You know, what kind of frequency would you need? Where would you go to make this work? And there’s a lot of great ideas out there, and there’s some experimentation going on and that’s why we’re doing these research initiatives with them,” said Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, the new commander of USTRANSCOM, earlier this month during an online discussion with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“If something is that critical, whether it’s food or it’s an electronic part that you absolutely have to have, why wouldn’t we use that opportunity? And frankly, the different space companies are already experimenting with how to go to Mars. They already have to think about how to defeat gravity in landing, and this is just a little more gravity than what you see on Mars. So how do we take advantage of that and  …  just show up with humanitarian capability or with anything else we need to move around the world?”

In early 2020, Transportation Command signed a two-year research partnership with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to investigate the potential use of the company’s space transportation vehicles for expedited global delivery of Defense Department material and personnel. It also partnered with XArc to study the potential for utilizing spaceports as logistics bases. There is no exchange of money under the program, but the government does provide access to other resources.

Objectives of the SpaceX effort include investigating the technical possibility of employing its Starship Super Heavy launch vehicle and delivery costs in the next decade and using the Civil Air Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) program as a model for partnering with rocket transport providers. 

Under CRAF, airlines contractually commit to supplement military air transport of troops and equipment during wartime or other emergencies. To encourage carriers to participate, only CRAF partners can bid on government airlift contracts issued through the Defense Department during peacetime.

While Transportation Command acts as the contracting authority and is providing operational requirements, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is leading the science and technology effort to determine the viability and utility of using large commercial rockets for Department of Defense global logistics. 

Early adopter

Last summer, the Department of the Air Force added rocket cargo as the fourth transformational science and technology area included in the Vanguard program, which focuses on prototyping and experimentation for advanced emerging weapon systems and warfighting concepts that can provide superiority on the battlefield in the next decade.

The AFRL will research and develop the techniques and processes needed to utilize rockets for terrestrial cargo delivery, including the ability to land a rocket on a wide range of nontraditional materials and surfaces, including at remote sites. Scientists and engineers will also research the ability to safely land a rocket near personnel and structures, engineer a rocket cargo bay and logistics for rapid loading and unloading, and air drop from the rocket after reentry in order to service locations where a rocket or aircraft can’t land, according to the announcement.

High launch costs and the relatively small payload capability have made cargo delivery by rocket impractical. But with commercial companies now developing large rockets and reusable stages that safely land back on Earth, there is the potential for expanding cargo capacity and dramatically reducing launch costs, military officials say. 

“Rapid logistics underpins our ability to project power,” said Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr., commander of Air Force Materiel Command, in a statement last June. “That is the fundamental motivation for initiating the rocket cargo program. We see its initial applications in swiftly restoring operational capability for forces forward in austere environments as well as dramatically reducing the time required to deliver crucial humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

In the past, the government led rocket technology development and bore most of the cost. Now the Air Force is primarily investing in the science and technology to quickly adapt commercial advances to the Pentagon’s logistics missions and then be the first customer to procure the new capability through service leases.

In related news, the U.S. Air Force’s innovation arm last month signed a three-year contract extension valued at up to $60 million with Boom Supersonic, the aerospace company developing a 65- to 88-passenger jet that can travel at 1.7 times the speed of sound. Last summer, United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) formally expressed interest in the plane and invested seed money in the company. 

The Air Force’s strategic funding is designed to accelerate R&D in Boom’s commercial airline, called Overture, and identify how it can assist in military missions such as reconnaissance. The announcement said a derivative of Overture could offer the Air Force a future strategic capability in rapid global transport and logistics.

Boom recently selected the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina, as the site of its first full-scale manufacturing facility. The company says it plans to fly commercial passengers by 2029, a timetable skeptics say is overly ambitious.

Earlier this month, startup developer Destinus raised $29 million as it tries to build an  autonomous, hydrogen-powered hypersonic aircraft capable of delivering cargo anywhere in the world.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at ekulisch@freightwaves.com