Starship and Falcon 1
The Starship Mark 1 vehicle (left) stands next to a Falcon 1 first stage at the Sept. 28 update by SpaceX on Starship development in Texas. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force plans to further study the potential use of commercial rockets to transport cargo around the world.

According to Air Force budget documents, a project named “rocket cargo” has been selected as one of the Air Force’s so-called Vanguard programs. These are research investments that the Air Force believes could provide useful capabilities in the future. Vanguard programs funded to date include artificial intelligence technologies, autonomous vehicles and navigation satellites. 

The Air Force in its budget proposal for fiscal year 2022 is seeking $47.9 million for the rocket cargo project. An Air Force spokesman said an official announcement on the designation of rocket cargo as a Vanguard program is expected this week.

The rocket cargo program would continue work that started last year when the Air Force signed agreements with SpaceX and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc) to study concepts for rapid transportation through space. The Air Force in 2021 spent $9.7 million on studies on the use of rocket for cargo deliveries. 

The budget request says the project in 2022 will seek technologies from the commercial space industry at large and does not specify any companies. The Air force wants to examine the benefits and challenges of using rockets to move 100 tons of cargo to any location in the world in less than an hour. 

“Rocket cargo will demonstrate new trajectories and ways to fly large rockets, the ability to land rockets at austere locations, and design and test an ejectable pod for air drop,” said the budget request. 

The funds would pay for prototypes to be used in field experiments and tests in simulated environments. 

The description of the project suggests the Air Force is interested in exploring the capabilities of very large reusable space vehicles — like SpaceX’s Starship — for military transportation.

“The Department of the Air Force seeks to leverage the current multi-billion dollar commercial investment to develop the largest rockets ever, and with full reusability to develop and test the capability to leverage a commercial rocket to deliver cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity,” said the budget request. 

The Air Force explained that is does not plan to invest in commercial rocket development, but rather in technologies that would be needed to use commercial vehicles to meet specific military demands.

The rocket cargo project will use modeling and simulations to analyze the military utility, performance and cost of transporting loads or air drop cargo payloads. 

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...