Many have shown interest in new rocket developments lately, but surely not for air cargo! However, at least one potential user disagrees.
That potential user is the military – specifically, the US Air Force, through its newest branch, the US Space Force. It’s a program called the Rocket Cargo Vanguard, within the Air Force’s Research Laboratory (AFRL). It will study “the viability and utility of using large commercial rockets for Department of Defense global logistics”.
We have seen projects from companies like SpaceX with rockets that can be re-used. They can land either near their launch pad, or on a sea barge with a rather unlikely name. To SpaceX, the appeal of landing these rockets is all about reusing expensive, hard-to-source rocket engines. But the same principle could allow such a rocket to carry cargo. After all, they ARE cargo vehicles. It’s just that usually the destination is space.
Any Cargo Rocket In Particular?
It seems that the Air Force already has a design in mind for its cargo rocket. The graphics in the AFRL’s press release have more than a passing resemblance to the SpaceX Starship. After numerous troubled attempts, the Starship test rockets have been more successful lately. Of course these rockets had no payload when they landed. Why would they?
However, carrying cargo (or people) between destinations on Earth has been among Elon Musk’s targets. So using such a rocket for cargo isn’t an entirely new idea – just an ambitious one. And while military customers are always a possibility, Musk’s original claims were for commercial applications for these rockets!
In the case of the US Air Force, right now their priorities include a feasibility study on what kind of surfaces such a cargo rocket could land on. Also, they want to see how close its landing site could be to people and/or structures. And finally, there’s the idea of air-dropping cargo (!) from the rocket, at places where it can’t possibly land. Actually, air-dropping cargo with rockets is a much older idea. However, cost has always been the prohibitive factor, in scaling up such a concept.
Military Vs Commercial
Acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth had this to say, about this ambitious project:
“The Air Force has provided rapid global mobility for decades and Rocket Cargo is a new way the Department can explore complimentary capabilities for the future. Vanguard initiatives lead to game-changing breakthroughs that preserve our advantage over near-peer competitors, and this latest addition is also a significant milestone as the first Vanguard evaluated under the Space Force’s oversight.”
The AFRL makes specific mention of “advertised commercial capability and business objectives” of the designs under study. A cargo rocket option would have significant military applications, as well as the ability to help in sudden humanitarian crises.
This development follows the introduction of a lot of private space launch projects. SpaceX gets a lot of the press, but even smaller, sub-orbital rocket designs could prove suitable for cargo. Blue Origin comes to mind. Also, the Stratolaunch project initially involved an air-launched version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. So the final form of such a cargo rocket is very much up in the air… no pun intended.
How easy it will be to commercialize such plans, is up for debate. With current thinking moving towards more environmentally-friendly air travel, a cargo rocket would raise a few eyebrows. On the other hand, this could depend on the rocket fuels used.