U.S. Air Force Expresses Interest in Possibly Starship-Based “Rocket Cargo” Concept

The U.S. Air Force has expressed interest in the possibility of using a rocket and spacecraft similar to SpaceX’s Starship, as evidenced by a $200 billion budget request that included $47.9 million for the study of a “rocket cargo” system that can transport cargo from anywhere to any point on Earth.

The proposal didn’t mention SpaceX or Starship by name, but the Air Force’s descriptions of the planned system seem to closely match the company’s plans for using Starship for point-to-point travel on Earth. The proposed $47.9 million would be used to “test the capability to leverage a commercial rocket to deliver AF cargo anywhere on the Earth in less than one hour, with a 100-ton capacity … with full reusability.”

Elon Musk has made no secret of the idea that Starship could be used for the transport of cargos and sometimes passengers between two points on Earth that can currently only be reached by flights that require several hours in the air and the likelihood of multiple layovers. The proposed use of Starship could easily transport up to 100 tons of cargo between points on Earth in as little as an hour.

At this point, the most likely plan is that these flights would be launched from ocean-based platforms that are far enough away from population centers that any mishaps or sonic booms from the rockets are unlikely to damage nearby buildings. SpaceX is currently converting two oil rigs into experimental ocean-based launch platforms named “Phobos” and “Deimos”, the same names as the two moons of Mars and a reminder of CEO Elon Musk’s ultimate ambitions for Mars. Elon Musk recently issued an effective progress report on these platforms.

Once Starship becomes operational, it could easily be used for the delivery of cargo that is time-sensitive or could be vulnerable to attacks on other ground- or air-based cargo delivery systems. The Air Force’s requirements include the idea that its contractors for a “rocket cargo system” could develop “novel trajectories” and other ways to reduce the risk of a delivery being detected and attacked by an enemy.

If the Air Force wants this to happen anytime soon, however, it may have to put some “behind the scenes” pressure on the FAA to lay off SpaceX a little bit. The FAA is currently jeopardizing SpaceX’s schedule for planned Starship tests like an upcoming orbital test that will launch from its Boca Chica, Texas, facility as early as July by demanding a study of its potential impact on local wildlife. Although an FAA senior staff member has defended SpaceX before a Congressional hearing recently, the regulatory agency has sparred with SpaceX and Elon Musk often enough that his public praise may not have been very believable.

The U.S. Transportation Command currently relies on a variety of private companies like FedEx, UPS, American Airlines, and Delta Airlines to supplement its ability to move cargo. The Transportation Command’s current contracts with these companies add up to $3.3 billion. While SpaceX’s Starship is unlikely to entirely kill the business of “traditional” shipping companies and airlines, it could easily snag a slice of the pie by getting its “high-speed premium” cargo service up and running.