SpaceX Funded for On-Earth Rocket Cargo

SpaceX a $102 million five-year US Air Force contract to demonstrate delivering cargo anywhere on earth (point to point) in an hour. The under one hour delivery is not specified in the contract but using the the SpaceX Starship would enable delivery of up to 220 tons in under one hour. There was a previous rocket cargo contract for SpaceX for about $48 million.

A new nine-engine SpaceX Starship design could transport 220 tons with a range of about 8000 miles. An Airbus A380 can transport 150 tons in a cargo configuration. A C17A can transport about 78 tons up to 2800 miles.

The contract is for the rocket cargo program, a new project led by the Air Force Research Laboratory to investigate the utility of using large commercial rockets for Department of Defense global logistics.

This is the largest contract awarded to date for rocket cargo. U.S. Transportation Command in 2020 signed cooperative research and development agreements with SpaceX and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc) to study concepts for rapid transportation through space.

In June, 2021, the Department of the Air Force announced June 4 the designation of Rocket Cargo as the fourth Vanguard program as part of its transformational science and technology portfolio identified in the DAF 2030 Science and Technology strategy for the next decade. Additionally, the U.S. Space Force was designated as the lead service for Rocket Cargo Vanguard, marking the service’s first such program.

SOURCES- SpaceX, Space News
Written By Brian Wang,

19 thoughts on “SpaceX Funded for On-Earth Rocket Cargo”

  1. I'm speculating that designing such a vehicle might be part of the contract; It doesn't specifically say what rocket would be used, just that it has to be compatible with the military's intermodal containers.

    If you want such a system to be genuinely versatile, it's got to be able to land on unimproved surfaces, which certainly isn't Starship. But SpaceX does have the chops to design a disposable reentry and landing system for standard shipping containers, especially since the specs would not have to be that great compared to a rocket that could handle putting them into a suborbital path to begin with.

  2. If there's a project of a vehicle able to drop from a suborbital trajectory and land propulsively I've yet to see it.

    Albeit, Starship ought to be able to do that…

    I wonder now if they are actually envisaging to buy expendable Starships for dropping stuff.

  3. This is the Air Force. They have experience shipping stuff all over the world. This thing will be landing at very capable airbases hours away from any combat zone. And the countries of the world don't shoot willy nilly at missiles that file flight plans. Also, turning a 14 hour delivery run into less than 1 hour? I could tell war stories all day long but yeah, they will want this, even if it is seldom used it could still easily be worth it.

  4. You raise good points. The use case I had in mind was the logistics chain in the build-up prior to war, not a hot landing zone.

    I figure bullets and beans must be trucked from a depot to the nearest "stage zero," then an hour later caught at a US base near a hot-spot, then trucked, barged, or packed to a forward staging area. Though the rocket trip is sexy cool transit time will be dominated by getting too/from launch towers.

    I assumed the US Navy will keep sea lanes open for their container ships which may not be a valid assumption. This alone might make the game worth the candle!

    In a low intensity/asymmetrical conflict those big towers and fuel tanks will be a very high value target for someone with nothing but a dagger and a dream.

  5. An 8,000 mile suborbital hop requires a lot less delta V than actually making orbit. Little enough that the Starship can do it without a booster. Adding the extra delta V to make orbit would essentially zero out the payload you could carry.

  6. You just need a disposable landing vehicle that can be dropped in the middle of a suborbital hop. Would need a bit of a heat shield, and enough delta V to deorbit and kill terminal velocity, which, really, is not much. Probably grid fins for terminal guidance.

    I would think you'd use solid rockets in this case, given the application was disposable, and the low delta V doesn't demand a high ISP. SpaceX's experience with hover-slamming Falcon boosters would come in handy here. You can't easily kill a solid fueled rocket, but you could let it go on touch down, a very military thing to do.

  7. The USA has military bases across the globe, are those not targets? they have worked for decades.

    The idea these delicate rockets will land bravely in the middle of a firefight is probably mistaken. They will carry a meaningful amount of cargo from a nice launching pad to a nice landing pad somewhere across the planet in less than an hour, that's what they will be good for.

    The exception of it would be if it's meant to deploy something you don't care that much about how it lands, but instead you care where, like some kinetic impactors.

  8. So, the Pentagon is going to install "stage zero" launch towers at all the world's trouble-spots where they'll be totally "not a target." Or will we be back to adding landing legs and some unobtrusive zillion-gallon LOX and Methane tanks that are also totally "not a target."

  9. Gwen Shotwell's good relations with the aerospace and military industry would be how my proposal would work:

    First, take a look at the contractors for SLS and then consider what happens if the military comes to them with Gwen Shotwell in tow along with SpaceX's IP. The pork gets to the right places along with a friendly relationship with SpaceX. The military would know how to do that and why it must.

    Second, the money SpaceX gets for licensing its IP still gets plowed into developing a _commercial_ transporter as has been planned all along, without the encumbrance of meeting milspecs _or_ figuring out the optimal way of doling out the pork. For the reasons you point out, this would be far more likely to succeed than the military's own contractors, but the point is that it would succeed. Would the military like to have a working transport along with the kind of organization that can keep ahead of China or would it like to eat the golden goose?

  10. There is now way that the military could make a functioning version of the starship with just a little IP, for starters. And even if they could, their versions of the Starship would be over budget and late.

    Second, SpaceX will need someone to defend them politically. And the mission part of NASA is less powerful than the senators pushing for pork money in their respective states. The other part of NASA is pushing for "in house" invented rockets, such as the SLS rocket. Don't expect that "half" to defend SpaceX.

    But the military realizes that unless they get first to space with weapons systems, and a lot of if, China may get there first. So they will be pretty agnostic about who can take them there, as long as it's cheap and in "bulk". Ergo, the military will be the most likely ally that SpaceX can get. Without any defender, the "old" boys would pull some strings to slow down SpaceX to a crawl.

    Here, I think Gwen Shotwell is really valuable through her good relations with the airospace and military industry. Go SpaceX!

  11. That would also solve the lacking range. According to the text, the range of the Starship is 8000 miles, which is not quite halfway around the globe. But if you put a lander in orbit, you can let it "coast" until it's over the destination and then have it fire some retroboosters to land. But then again, why can you not let the Starship coast indefinitely in orbit..? Perhaps you know the answer?

  12. See Criswell LSP for a much faster solution to meaningful scale, at least 10 TWe. The plan to use the Moon/Bennu is the same no matter how big or cheap the rocket is. In fact, product, such as Solar Power Sats, launch is just a delay in getting into Space, where resources not avail from or on Earth exist, primarily micr0g and sunlight and vacuum . . . Also, see ppg 12-13 for a way to start NOW.

  13. Even absent total war, it would not be surprising to see a SpaceX rocket being mistaken for a missile and shot down over a hostile country, perhaps even spurring the start of a war. And the infrastructure needed to support a landing site, refueling and turnaround maintenance since it is not just refueling to get a rocket back in the air, rules out any but the most friendly of countries. So that begs the question: why the rush and the expense in the first place? Planes can land anywhere there's already an airport, be serviced by well established trained crews, then be refueled and put back in the air in hours, or even minutes if you skip the service part and just refuel.

  14. SpaceX just made a bad mistake. They should have licensed the tech to the AF to then hand over to the hood ornament military contractors to develop as a military transport and then taken the money to develop a commercial transport. Getting in bed with the military isn't nearly as bad as getting into bed with a civilian government agency but, outside of total war, it's still poison to an entrepreneurial organization. Even in total war its really easy to succumb to the politicians.

  15. That's what I'm thinking, they'll eject payload while passing over, and the payload manages its own landing. It only needs enough delta V to deorbit and zero out terminal velocity. The Starship itself continues on to land someplace that has the necessary equipment for refueling.

  16. I'd like to see it deliver cargo to Antarctica, I guess, just because it is the most Mars-like place on Earth. I suppose there are places that look more like Mars, like some places in Australia (dry red soil), but it is hard to beat Antarctica for lack of transport infrastructure and blasted chilliness. Maybe have a landing pad that could be carried on a truck (or brought some other way) and set up anywhere with heat insulation that will keep the rocket from melting the ice under it, and lock together firmly. Also, I bet they could think of something nifty to bring there in the rocket that was not otherwise possible, other than obvious military equipment. It is also a great spot to show that it can get somewhere, drop off a load and without refueling, get back home. That would be of great military value.
    I don't like it being used militarily, however. How many more passenger 747s would have been shot down, if they would have used 747s for military as well? And it could have happened to. Boeing did make a bid, back in the day.

  17. Space Solar Geoengineering is viable with ~1000 Starship launches and recent advancements. This should be funded to be deployed ASAP before climate tipping points accelerate all the damage.

  18. Landing "anywhere" is pretty much out of the question.
    Also, if the ship is going back, it needs fuel, which needs infrastructure.

    Maybe eject some payload while doing a fly-by?
    Sky crane concept ?

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