WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force 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 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.

Greg Spanjers, rocket cargo program manager, said in a statement to SpaceNews that the contract formalizes a government-industry partnership to help “determine exactly what a rocket can achieve when used for cargo transport, what is the true capacity, speed, and cost of the integrated system.”

The contract, awarded Jan. 14, was not announced by the Air Force and was first reported by AviationWeek.com. 

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. The command last month also signed a CRADA with Blue Origin.

The contract is not specific to any of SpaceX’s launch vehicles. AFRL will have access to SpaceX’s commercial orbital launches and booster landings to collect key data on environments signatures and performance. SpaceX also will provide cargo bay designs that support rapid load and unload and are compatible with U.S. TRANSCOM intermodal containers. The contract also includes an option for a full-up demonstration of heavy cargo transport and landing.

“Commercial vendors envision fixed point-to-point transport to established sites, a commercial service that we are certainly interested in procuring once available,” said Spanjers. He said DoD is “very interested in the ability to deliver the cargo anywhere on Earth to support humanitarian aid and disaster relief.”

Many areas where disasters occur don’t have commercial spaceports, however. “We are therefore exploring a wider range of novel trajectories to mitigate overflight issues, exploring a broad range of landing options for austere sites, researching human factors when landing near populations, and integrating a broader range of cargo including medical supplies,” he said.

SpaceX and the Air Force will explore the use of intermodal containers that are compatible with other transportation delivery modes. 

Spanjers said there is no specified timeline for a demonstration at this point. “AFRL will be leveraging several commercial demonstration launches over the next few years to collect the data,” he said. The Air Force “does not drive this schedule but rather will collect data whenever SpaceX flies relevant missions.”

A full-up demonstration of heavy cargo transport capability to another location on Earth could be attempted in a few years, but that has yet to be decided. 

“Significant heavy cargo from orbit has not been previously attempted,” said Spanjers. “It will fully stress the commercial thermal protection system, landing propulsion, and landing legs.”

The Air Force plans to bring in other companies into the program over time, he said. “We continue to talk to other launch vehicle providers and will consider awarding additional contracts later in the program.”

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...