New Space Force Deals Aim to Use 3D Printing and Rockets to Transport Military Cargo on Earth

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Rocket Lab and Sierra Space are the latest companies to join the U.S. Air Force‘s Rocket Cargo program that plans to use suborbital space vehicles for ultra-fast transportation of cargo and people on Earth. The two newcomers will join Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Orbit, which the military has already enlisted to explore point-to-point transportation via rockets.

Like most space industry businesses, all five companies tapped for the project use additive manufacturing technologies to develop their rockets. However, in the case of newcomers Rocket Lab and Sierra Space, they both leverage 3D printing in-house to find the best solutions for some of the most challenging problems in ways different than they would have before. Actually, Rocket Lab was the first small launcher developer to rely heavily on 3D printing for parts.

As part of the deal, Sierra Space and Rocket Lab signed separate agreements with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) ‘s Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) to explore the possibility of using their respective flight systems (Rocket Lab’s Neutron and Electron launch vehicles and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplanes and Shooting Star cargo modules) for superfast cargo delivery on Earth.

According to the agreement, Rocket Lab also plans on using its Photon satellite bus to establish on-orbit cargo depots and deliver re-entry capability. Similarly, Sierra Space will try to use its on-orbit infrastructure for precise, cost-effective, and timely global delivery of DoD logistics and personnel.

Commenting on the deal, Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice said that his company’s first commercial spaceplane, the Dream Chaser, could provide hypersonic point-to-point solutions to U.S. government agencies like the DoD.

“We plan to leverage these technologies to reach anywhere on the globe within three hours.”

Logistics is an integral part of military operations and ensures the transport of personnel, provision of services, medical support, and much more. However, according to a 2019 report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, the strategic American military system for moving troops, weapons, and supplies over long distances has decayed significantly. As a result, it needs rapid upgrading to prepare for a future war with China or Russia. Furthermore, since the military moved into a computer-based “just-in-time” logistics model, it needs to deal with the threat of cyberattacks on logistics, which has increased significantly over the past decade.

Considering this environment, the vanguard program Rocket Cargo will provide the Air Force with advanced emerging systems and concepts through prototyping and experimentation to deliver remarkable new capabilities. In addition, the program seeks to explore the viability of space launches to deliver improvements in delivery cost and speed compared to existing air cargo operations.

In particular, the USTRANSCOM agreement with Sierra Space and Rocket Lab is slated to develop concepts and investigate emerging industry capabilities for the projection of forces for immediate employment and agile transportation options to project and sustain combat forces in complex and contested environments in addition to non-combat activities such as humanitarian relief operations and medical missions.

Rocket Lab's Neutron rocket. Rocket Lab’s Neutron rocket. Image courtesy of Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck commented, “Point-to-point space transportation offers a new ability to move equipment quickly around the world in hours, enabling a faster response to global emergencies and natural disasters.”

Director of Rocket Lab since 2006, the New Zealand entrepreneur said both Electron and Neutron would be ideal for the new agreement with the U.S. Air Force. Primarily, the reusable orbital-class small rocket Electron is already a proven and reliable launch vehicle, demonstrating its adaptability with programs like the recent CAPSTONE mission to the Moon for NASA. At the same time, the brand’s medium-lift two-stage Neutron launch vehicle (still under development) builds on Electron’s capability with a much larger payload capacity. In addition, it is designed for frequent reflight, making it a perfect fit to enable fast deployment of vital resources while eliminating the en-route stops and air refueling required by air cargo solutions.

“Topping it off with Photon cargo depots on orbit provides a well-rounded approach to the future of rapid global deployment. We’re excited to be collaborating with USTRANSCOM on this forward-thinking, innovative research program that could ultimately shift the way the Department of Defense considers logistics response options,” explained Beck.

Although the idea of using rockets for point-to-point travel on Earth isn’t new (Elon Musk has been suggesting connecting cities by a suborbital rocket for years), we wonder if the future of Earth-bound military transport will rely on space. Seeing how many space companies the U.S. Air Force is tapping for potential suborbital space flights, we can assume that at some point within the next 20 to 30 years, suborbital and even orbital space vehicle development will be capable of transporting cargo between two points on the Earth’s surface.

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