Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft made a safe return home from its five-day stay at the International Space Station on Wednesday, concluding a long-awaited test mission that could pave the way for the Starliner to launch astronauts for the first time later this year.
The companies so far tapped to join the military in exploring ways to bring that idea to fruition include Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and, most recently, Rocket Lab, according to a Tuesday press release.
Essentially, the lineup is a who’s-who of the commercial “new space” sector — relatively young rocket companies that are already shaking up the business of getting satellites to orbit at cheaper price points.
But these deals with the military are something different. Rather than rockets leaving their freight in Earth’s orbit, this program aims to use them to get weapons, supplies or perhaps even people from one country to another at speeds far surpassing that of other types of transportation.
And that’s because rockets have a speed advantage over airplanes. Rockets that can shoot into the high atmosphere have much less air to cut through as they zoom over the planet. With less air dragging them back, they can go much faster than something that needs air to move, like a jet. The tradeoff, however, is that rockets tend to be far more expensive than aircraft.
“Imagine traveling from the continental United States to anywhere in the Pacific region and measuring your transit time in minutes,” reads an August press release from the military’s US Transportation Command. “Picture the U.S. delivering assistance to an ally needing disaster relief, or combating an adversary planning provocative actions against U.S. national interests at rocket-speed.”
It’s a similar idea to one employed by the largest militaries in the world for decades, that of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. But while those are designed to slam into the Earth at hypersonic speeds when they reach their target, the idea here is for the payload to come to a gentle landing.
The contracts fall under a program headed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, simply called “Rocket Cargo.” And it’s one of the Air Force Department’s four “Vanguard Programs,” which are high-profile projects pegged for accelerated development.
The military’s current investment in the program is “small,” according to a May statement from Air Force deputy assistant secretary Kristen Baldwin, though the goal is for the military to influence “early commercial design efforts and leverages $5-10B ongoing industry and NASA investments.”
The idea of using rockets for point-to-point travel on Earth isn’t new. SpaceX, for example, has advertised that its forthcoming Starship rocket could be used to shuttle paying customers from New York to Shanghai in 40 minutes.
That option remains a long way off for consumers. And broadly speaking, rockets making point-to-point trips are still a distant goal. The trips would be extremely expensive as well as technologically and geopolitically complicated. (There aren’t, after all, a ton of pressing reasons to get people or cargo from one place to another at breakneck speeds.) But with current trends in the burgeoning commercial space industry, some believe it’s inevitable. The market for hypersonic passenger travel could be a $20 billion per-year industry, UBS estimated in 2019.
And the military’s goal with the Rocket Cargo program, which was first announced last year, is to get involved with such efforts early in the hopes that it can quickly put that tech to work for the US and allies when it is available.
“Logistics speed is at the heart of military supremacy. If a commercial company is in advanced development for a new capability to move materiel faster, then [the Department of Defense] needs to promptly engage and seek to be early adopters,” according to the program’s website.
For its part, Rocket Lab plans to use its new deal with the military to explore ways of using its Electron rocket — which the company hopes will also be reusable if it can figure out how to capture it with a helicopter mid-air after launch — to shuttle cargo around the Earth as well as a larger, forthcoming rocketing called Neutron.
Additionally, the company hopes to explore how it might use its Photon spacecraft to establish “cargo depots” in Earth’s orbit that will have the ability to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and get needed supplies to a targeted area, according to a press release.