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Rocket cargo delivery gets big boost

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SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. (June 7, 2021) – Department of the Air Force announced Friday its fourth Vanguard program focused on Rocket Cargo signaling another step toward someday using rockets to deliver cargo for the Department of Defense (DOD).


U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) is partnering with the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Space Force and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to explore commercial capabilities in the field of space travel for global logistics. AFRL is leading a science and technology effort to determine the viability and utility of using large commercial rockets for Department of Defense global logistics, potentially expanding the portfolio of capabilities the USSF presents to combatant commanders.


“Being able to move payloads across the globe in under an hour is the logistics of tomorrow,” U.S. Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, commander, USTRANSCOM, said following the funding of the AFRL study. Lyons announced USTRANSCOM’s partnership with SpaceX, XArc, and AFRL to explore for point-to-point space travel for logistics during the annual National Defense Transportation Association and USTRANSCOM Fall Meeting in October 2020.


“We must challenge ourselves to think differently about projecting the force of the future, and how rocket cargo can be part of our logistic enterprise. Within the next five to 10 years, space transportation will allow the command to complement its air, sea, and land logistics operations” Lyons said. “And that will provide senior leaders a completely redefined variable in decision making and the advantage of time.”


The Rocket Cargo Vanguard opens the door to key data from commercial partners for better understanding the challenges of landing at an austere site or even on a maritime platform. SpaceX plans to launch multiple Starship prototypes in 2021. With each commercial launch and test, DOD and industry move closer to making space transportation a reality.


Point-to-point space transportation presents a fundamental shift in the way the DOD could respond to contingencies and disasters by potentially reducing the number of days required for planning, coordination, and execution. In conjunction with capacity, the speed of space transportation shows the potential to offer more options and greater decision space for leaders while creating dilemmas for adversaries.


U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Moore is managing the partnerships and guiding the thought leadership for USTRANSCOM’s vision. “The DOD has explored space transportation in the past,” he said. “Today, multiple factors are at play and it is the convergence of favorable costs, capacity, speed and access that makes commercial space mobility and logistics increasingly attractive.”


Point-to-point space transportation shows the potential to provide movement of vital resources while eliminating en route stops and other challenges, such as diplomatic approvals for access and overflight. Once orbital, vehicles have the capability to reach any point on earth.


In the past, the U.S. government led the technology development and bore the brunt of the cost. Today, commercial space launch providers, SpaceX and others, are rapidly developing and funding reusable transportation capabilities with payload capacities that may prove beneficial for strategic logistics.


“Since industry bears the bulk of development costs, the government is in an opportune position to influence designs and be postured to utilize future capabilities,” said Moore. The strategy aligns with the 2020 National Space Policy to develop government systems only when no suitable or cost-effective service is available.


According to Moore, it is similar to how the DOD works with commercial aircraft engineers to ensure compatible defense features such as the 463L pallet system, which is a common size platform for bundling and moving air cargo, and serves as the primary air cargo pallet for the U.S. Air Force, other air forces, and many civilian cargo transport aircraft.


USTRANSCOM exists as a warfighting combatant command to project and sustain military power at a time and place of the nation’s choosing. Powered by dedicated men and women, USTRANSCOM underwrites the lethality of the Joint Force, advances American interests around the globe, and provides our nation's leaders with strategic flexibility to select from multiple options, while creating multiple dilemmas for our adversaries.


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