ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. Air Force is pressing forward with plans to demonstrate point-to-point rocket travel perhaps in a few years.

Among the reasons for optimism are SpaceX’s launch rates and ability to reuse rockets, which “dramatically changes the business case,” said Gregory Spanjers, chief scientist overseeing the rocket cargo program at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Speaking on a panel Jan. 30 at the Space Mobility Conference, Spanjers said AFRL and SpaceX have been “digging through different scenarios” for the use of the company’s giant rocket Starship for rapid, global cargo transportation.

“We’ve looked at this for seven years, and it never makes any sense,” said Spanjers. “Now we’re finding that, indeed, it’s looking a lot more attractive than it has in the past.”

The Air Force two years ago awarded SpaceX a $102 million five-year contract to demonstrate technologies and capabilities to transport military cargo and humanitarian aid around the world on a heavy rocket. 

The rocket cargo concept, however, faces significant technical hurdles, questions about the safety of having rockets drop cargo and whether the economics will ever work. But AFRL and SpaceX are taking the long view, Spanjers said, and it’s conceivable that if Starship is ready, a demonstration could be performed as early as 2026.

Optimism about Starship

AFRL’s new confidence is based on projections of Starship’s reusability and rapid turnarounds. Each launch could deploy over 100 tons to orbit — enough to rival payload transported by military C-17 cargo jets.

If Starship can achieve high launch rates, it could be relatively inexpensive for cargo containers to be released from the rocket like satellites, Spanjers added. “We can insert cargo transport as part of their regular launch rate progression, and treat it just like another satellite in their flow, or have contracts in place where we can inject it into their flow,” he said. “That’s when we can bring the costs down by an order of magnitude and where it starts getting extremely attractive.”

The plan is to continue to refine the concept as vehicles and delivery systems evolve, he said. “What we’re trying to do is set ourselves up to be an early adopter of these big rockets as they mature.”

AFRL has been working with vendors on ways to “containerize” military cargo so that it can go on a rocket, and the challenge is to come up with a standard container design that can also be used on other modes of transportation. 

Concept needs time to mature

Gary Henry, a former Boeing executive and now a SpaceX senior adviser for national security space solutions, said the idea of using rockets for cargo delivery usually encounters deep skepticism, but he pointed to the success of the company’s reusable rockets as an example of how seemingly impossible concepts can become reality.

Just like reusable rockets were met with doubts about feasibility and cost, rocket cargo just needs time to mature, Henry said during the panel discussion. 

“A decade ago, the pursuit of vertical takeoff and vertical landing of orbital rockets was considered radical by some and crazy by others,” Henry said. “I think it’s reasonable right now to have that kind of skepticism about point to point rocket cargo delivering important payloads under an hour, anywhere on the planet.”

Starship is a “very different animal” than any rocket that has ever been built, he added. “Rocket cargo point to point is not the reason we’re building Starship,” Henry said. “We’re building Starship to get to Mars. And what we’re finding is that this is a system that has profound impacts for national security. And one of them just happens to be rocket point to point.”

Given the studies and analysis conducted so far, Henry said, “it feels like there is going to be a commercial case there” although that depends on DoD’s use cases and whether it buys cargo delivery as a commercial service. 

If the government wanted to buy a dedicated Starship rocket, it could, he said, “but from our perspective, if you want to fully leverage the commercial attributes of a Starship or any launcher that’s out there operating commercially, you want to buy it as a service.”

Starship is still in development. SpaceX so far has conducted two Starship test flights in 2023, and is looking to perform a third one this month.

Military is watching

U.S. Transportation Command, which manages the movement of military personnel and cargo around the world, is working with several rocket companies to help determine how the U.S. military could use these vehicles.

Col. Christopher Seaman, chief of U.S. TRANSCOM’s strategy division, said “people are watching” the advances of the space industry but it remains to be seen if the rocket cargo vision can be turned into reality. “Obviously watching what SpaceX is doing … as soon as Starship does its thing we will see that this is real, and that will force a lot of the functions.”

Having a global infrastructure to launch Starships or other cargo rockets also remains a big unknown. “Both as a company but also as a nation, to fully leverage Starship, we’re going to need a proliferation of launch sites” both in the United States and overseas, Henry said. 

Cargo potentially could be delivered from a rocket to the ground using special reentry capsules such as those developed by Inversion Space, the company’s co-founder and CEO Justin Fiaschetti, said at the conference. 

“If you use this type of reentry vehicle you don’t need so many launch pads,” he said.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...