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Rocket Cargo
A notional illustration of the “Rocket Cargo” concept being studied by the US Air Force for the rapid delivery of cargo. SpaceX’s Starship is the most likely vehicle to be able to perform such services in the near term. (credit: USAF)

Delivering a business case for rocket cargo

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Even in an era where the landing and reuse of rocket boosters has become commonplace (at least for one company), the idea seems a little, well, out there. Launch a rocket and have it land, 60 or 90 minutes later, halfway around the world, carrying tens of tons of cargo needed for military operations, humanitarian relief, or other purposes where time is of the utmost essence.

“We looked at this for seven years and it never made any sense,” said Spanjers. “But as we started digging into it, we found that the business case and the cost had changed dramatically.”

The idea of high-speed point-to-point transportation has long been considered by the space industry, leveraging vehicles intended for suborbital or orbital launches to deliver cargo or passengers but tapping into aviation markets that remain far larger than satellite launch. The concept, though, has never gotten very far until recently, when SpaceX’s Starship vehicle started attracting attention in the military. The company, as far back as a 2017 talk by CEO Elon Musk, proposed using what is now called Starship as a point-to-point vehicle (see “Mars mission sequels”, The Space Review, October 2, 2017). SpaceX, while occasionally mentioning it since, has not emphasized it.

In early 2022, the US Air Force awarded SpaceX a $102 million five-year contract as part of what it calls the Rocket Cargo program. The award is intended to study how SpaceX could transport military cargo on its launch vehicles using cargo containers compatible with other modes of transportation. The contract included an option for a demonstration of that cargo delivery capability.

Two years into the effort, the military’s interest is as strong as ever. “We looked at this for seven years and it never made any sense,” recalled Gregory Spanjers, chief scientist at the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), looking back at the start of the Rocket Cargo program. “But as we started digging into it, we found that the business case and the cost had changed dramatically.”

He spoke on a panel about the Rocket Cargo effort at the Space Mobility conference in Orlando, Florida, last month. That program, he said, is taking on a three-prong approach to study the military utility of rapid cargo delivery by rocket, the costs of doing so, and technical challenges.

Much of the focus, understandably, has been on the technical issues, not just with the rockets themselves but how they can effectively transport cargo. For the system to be useful, he said rockets will need to be ready for launch in an hour, far faster than even “tactically responsive” launch systems today. Containers for carrying the cargo would need to be compatible with other terrestrial intermodal systems but also protect the cargo from the rigors of spaceflight.

He suggested those studies had turned up no showstoppers for Rocket Cargo so far. “We are pretty tightly focused on developing a system that can go to an IOC, initial operating capability, as soon as possible,” he said.

Gary Henry, senior advisor for national security space solutions at SpaceX, was similarly upbeat about the prospects of using Starship for cargo delivery. “Starship is fundamentally meant to be a rapidly reusable, fully reusable launch vehicle,” he said. “It will put us on a cost trajectory that will begin at $200 a kilogram.”

“You will see, if Elon gets his way and the marginal cost of fuel is the single biggest driver of cost for one of these launches,” he added, “we’re talking about $20 a kilogram and below to low Earth orbit.”

That would make it, he argues, cost-competitive with air freight. Four companies—DHL, FedEx, UPS, and the US Postal Service—provide expedited shipping from the US to China and the western Pacific. He cited prices they offered of about $33 per kilogram for shipping cargo in two to five days. “Do you think if you could deliver that same package ten times faster, you might be able to sell it for $33 a kilogram? I think so.”

Starship, Henry noted, is not designed specifically for point-to-point cargo delivery, but in that role could offer significant capabilities. Starship could land with 30 metric tons of cargo, with potential to increase that over time, and offers a cargo bay similar in volume to a C-17 aircraft.

Others on the panel representing different Defense Department offices sounded even more optimistic about Rocket Cargo. “It’s a disruptive technology for the Air Force. That’s my number one recommendation to senior leadership about investment priorities when it comes to supporting the joint warfighting concept,” said Col. Gabe Arrington, chief of the disruptive technology division at the Air Force.

“I think in the near term it’s going to be reserved for missions that are very particular, very high-end, very exquisite,” said Seamans.

“This technology, I think, has the opportunity to both promote a continued free and open Indo-Pacific while also contributing directly to the warfight if and when that time would come,” said Col. Nathan Vosters, director of requirements, resources, and programs for U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific. “At the very least, this changes the calculus for our adversaries in the region.”

But what about the part of the US military charged with cargo transportation? “This could become another option,” said Air Force Col. Christopher Seaman, chief of the strategy division at US Transportation Command, or USTRANSCOM. “It’s intriguing. It’s easy to see why we care.”

He said more work was needed to better understand the end-to-end concept, like prepositioning cargo at launch sites so it can be readied for launch quickly and then, after landing, getting the cargo to military forces. “I don’t think we’re there” on how the overall concept would work. “The conversations are starting to occur to get a good idea of it.”

The program also needs a cost-benefit analysis. “In the near term, no one’s getting around the fact that it’s expensive,” he said. “I think in the near term it’s going to be reserved for missions that are very particular, very high-end, very exquisite.”


Not everyone is as optimistic about Rocket Cargo, though. “I don’t think it’s viable right now,” said David Buck, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who is currently president of BRPH Mission Solutions, an architectural and engineering firm that has worked on many spaceport projects.

He concluded the concept is technically feasible but, for the time being, too expensive. “It’s really attractive to say that I can get anywhere on the globe in 90 minutes,” he said during a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the Global Spaceport Alliance (GSA), held the day before the Space Mobility conference in Orlando. “From a military perspective, that sounds great. But, boy, that’s cost prohibitive.”

He cited not just technical concerns about designing cargo that can survive the rigors of launch and landing but also policy and regulatory ones. “‘Hey, Russia, we’re launching a point-to-point mission,’” he said, imagining how such a mission would be communicated. “‘This is not a nuclear warhead, trust us.’”

Even without the risks of confusing a cargo launch with an ICBM, such missions bring up new regulatory challenges. “I’m going to take off in the United States and I’m going to land somewhere in Asia. I need licensing and regulation between the two countries,” he said. “That’s really hard.”

He envisioned Rocket Cargo as little more than a niche capability for extremely critical payloads. “I’m just being real. I don’t see the military viability of this right now.”

“It’s really attractive to say that I can get anywhere on the globe in 90 minutes,” Buck said. “From a military perspective, that sounds great. But, boy, that’s cost prohibitive.”

The Space Mobility panel addressed some of those concerns, like the risk that a cargo launch would be misinterpreted as an ICBM. Spanjers said he envisioned doing accelerated versions of current warnings of space launches. “It looks nothing like an ICBM,” he said in terms of Starship’s size and its launch from existing spaceports versus ICBM fields.

“When Atlas Air and UPS and FedEx fly cargo around the world, that’s not seen as a bomber,” added Arrington.

Spanjers also addressed another frequent critique of Rocket Cargo: once the rocket lands at its faraway destination to deliver cargo, how does it get back? He argued the need for rapid delivery was only in one direction, with the vehicle then transported to a port to be shipped back to the US. “You’re not in a hurry on the way back.”

A Starship vehicle being prepared for a test flight that could take place as soon as early March. (credit: SpaceX)

Commercial versus military

The discussion at the two events showed some uncertainty about who would take the lead in rapid cargo delivery: the military or the private sector.

Buck said he expected such services to be developed commercially. “I think commercial will evolve this, it’ll get cheaper, and then eventually—10, 15 years in the future—I could see some military viability. We’re not there yet, in my opinion.”

Another panelist at the GSA event took a different view. “I would offer it’s going to need some military or national security pressure to help industry,” said Space Force Col. Shannon DaSilva, deputy director of operations at Space Systems Command. That was based on the same reason that Buck gave for the military not taking the lead: its expense.

Buck was unconvinced. “There’s more application right now in the commercial world than in the military.”

SpaceX’s Henry said on the Space Mobility panel that the company saw commercial applications for something like Rocket Cargo. He cited a hypothetical example long used by proponents of high-speed point-to-point delivery: a factory that goes offline because a malfunctioning component, costing the owner millions of dollars an hour until a replacement can be shipped from halfway around the world.

“If you go through the numbers, it feels like there is going to be a commercial case there,” he concluded, “but I really think it’s the DOD use cases that are going to take point and probably drive the conversation early on.”

Some military panelists expected any Rocket Cargo system to be commercially operated. “We’re here at a military forum, but this is commercially driven technology,” said Arrington.

“In my view, that will be a Wright Brothers moment,” Garcia said of the upcoming Starship test flight. “The world will look and say, ‘What just happened here? Can you do more of that? Can you do it safely?’”

Henry said later that while he expected Rocket Cargo to be commercially procured, there have been some initial discussions with the DOD about the military procuring “gray tail” Starships that it would own and operate, rather than SpaceX. “It really came down to specific missions where there’s a very specific and sometimes elevated risk, or sometimes dangerous, use case,” he said, adding that the company was exploring a wide range of options to meet DOD needs.

That balance between commercial and military interest in high-speed point-to-point might be illustrated soon. Oscar Garcia, CEO of InterFlight Global Corp. and an advocate for high-speed transportation (“I’m the point-to-point guy,” he introduced himself during another panel at the GSA meeting), is closely watching the next Starship test flight, likely to take place as soon as early March.

That test may follow the same profile the first two test flights last year attempted to carry out, launching from South Texas and splashing down 90 minutes later near Hawaii after completing nearly one orbit. “In my view, that will be a Wright Brothers moment,” he said. “The world will look and say, ‘What just happened here? Can you do more of that? Can you do it safely?’”

“We will immediate see what reaction it triggers,” he said of that test flight, arguing—or perhaps hoping—that it will stimulate demand for high-speed transportation at some reasonable price. “If that’s the case, we go to market pull rather than industry push.”

The military will also be watching that upcoming Starship and thinking about how that vehicle could provide rocket cargo services. “As soon as Starship does its thing,” said USTRANSCOM’s Seaman, “we’re going to go, ‘Wow, this is real.’”

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