Monday, June 07, 2021

Pentagon Envisions Using Cargo Rockets: Commercial technology under consideration as way to make superfast deliveries to military hot spots

The Wall Street Journal
By Doug Cameron
June 4, 2021 3:31 pm ET

The Pentagon has revived plans to use commercial rockets such as those being developed by SpaceX to deliver supplies to military hot spots.

The U.S. Air Force in partnership with the new Space Force said Friday that it wants to leverage work that companies are doing on space delivery to allow for the transport of up to 100 tons of military cargo anywhere in the world within an hour. That’s roughly the carrying capacity of a C-17 military transport jet.

Pentagon officials said recent technological advances are removing obstacles to space delivery, such as the risk of rockets heading back to earth being mistaken for nuclear missiles. Reusable rockets are bringing down the cost of space launches, and the reliability required for military use is also improving. Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Thursday notched its 101st successful mission in a row.

“It looks like technology may have caught up with a good idea,” said Greg Spanjers, program manager for the new Air Force Rocket Cargo initiative.

SpaceX and other private firms have outlined plans to provide cargo services via their rockets, launching loads into space that would be landed or parachuted to their final destination.

The uncrewed Starship successfully launched and landed last month by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., as the company is formally known, is the only craft currently designed to carry as much as 100 tons.

Pentagon officials said they would like to have multiple providers to carry supplies including military vehicles from commercial spaceports. If designs were refined to carry passengers, troops could also be involved, they said.

The Defense Department earmarked $48 million in its latest budget request to develop ways of sending cargo on commercial rockets and is talking to a number of launch providers, Dr. Spanjers said. The funding would be used to explore how to adapt cargo for space travel and identify how it could be delivered to austere environments.

He said the Pentagon is wary of distorting commercial efforts to create a space-delivery market by making it reliant on military funding, but wants to be an early adopter of the technology being developed commercially.

One of the biggest challenges had been to prevent an adversary such as Russia or China mistaking an incoming rocket hauling supplies from one equipped with nuclear warheads.

“We know how to handle that deconfliction,” said Dr. Spanjers.

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