The U.S. Air Force awarded a $102 million contract to use rockets to deliver military cargo and humanitarian aid globally.
The Air Force and SpaceX didn’t disclose which rockets would be used. However, rocket cargo program manager Greg Spanjers said that the rockets could be specially adapted for point-to-point delivery on Earth.
The initial program outlined in the contract will demonstrate “exactly what a rocket can achieve when used for cargo transport, what is the true capacity, speed, and cost of the integrated system,” Spanjers said.
As part of the contract, SpaceX will develop cargo bay designs that permit the rapid loading and unloading of cargo.
The Air Force will develop a variety of methods for delivering cargo from space. It may look into awarding similar contracts to other rocket launch companies in the future, as well as work with private contractors to develop ground-based space cargo delivery technologies.
The lack of commercial spaceports is one particular challenge. The United States has only eight spaceports, many of which are expansions to existing airports and former military air stations. Spaceport America in New Mexico is the first purpose-built spaceport.
The idea of using rockets for point-to-point cargo delivery on Earth is unlikely to solve all the issues that have plagued the logistics industry lately. However, it could allow for the rapid delivery of critical cargo where it’s needed the most.
With current capabilities, delivery of humanitarian aid can take days to travel from the point it’s loaded onto the transport vehicle to the point it is unloaded at its destination. A point-to-point rocket delivery could slash that time to hours or mere minutes, depending on where it’s launched from and where it’s going. That could reduce the amount of time it takes to deliver material aid to a disaster zone where response times for relief efforts are critical.
Competitors that are working on a space-based rapid cargo delivery system include Neutron Labs. This aerospace company is working on an orbital payload delivery system that a Neutron Labs spokesperson said was inspired by the children’s game Hungry, Hungry Hippos. It might also remind some people of “claw machine” games. Serious space buffs might say that it looks like a variation of the “angry alligator” from NASA’s Gemini IX mission in 1966.
SpaceX is already busy working on the several government contracts it won last year, including the lucrative lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program. It will also launch the first components of the Lunar Gateway, an orbital X-ray observatory, and the Jupiter-bound Europa Clipper for NASA. SpaceX is also slated to launch robotic lunar landers for other aerospace companies like Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines.
SpaceX has displayed a particular interest in demonstrating its assets’ ability to assist with disaster recovery, humanitarian aid, and any activity where mobility is essential. This includes making Starlink available to firefighters combatting wildfires in Washington State at a time when other companies like Verizon were throttling communications for first responders in an emergency situation. SpaceX sent Starlink terminals to provide communications in areas that were hit hard by tornadoes in Tennessee. It also developed a Starlink terminal that can be mounted to large vehicles like RVs and buses.