The Air Force recently slapped a Vanguard sticker on its new Rocket Cargo program, an FY22 budget request to explore using rockets to deliver cargo. The goal is pretty ambitious though — deliver
100 tons in 1 hour
anywhere on earth.
The idea has actually been around for generations, though we may now be in an era where technology has caught up with imagination. #commercialspace
We love the ambition, so we’ll start with the good.
Logistics is hard, and so is predicting the future needs of a deployed unit to keep the mission going. Having an easy button to press when the military needs a shortcut solution is a good feature to have.
Well, that was a short list.
The time to load the rocket is not factored into the 1-hour goal. That’s a big asterisk given the supplies not only have to get shipped to the launchpad…they have to get loaded onto the rocket.
The rocket needs to be fueled too, which takes more time. Oh, you can’t refuel a rocket to quick-turn it for another mission like you can with an aircraft or ship.
The program’s 100-ton bumper sticker goal is way more complicated than shooting a single rocket. The highest-capacity operational rocket is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which carries 70 tons.
Even then, there will always be a market for shipping outsized cargo that simple will not fit on top of the rocket. Turns out, shooting a tank into space and shooting a Tesla Roadster into space is not the same thing.
While the cost to access space has decreased 20X in the past decade, it still has a ways to go to make Rocket Cargo an economically viable alternative. FYI: Today it costs ~$1,200 per pound to put something into space.
OBTW, the flight signature of this rocket cargo vehicle may look eerily similar to a world-ending nuclear-tipped ICBM. This is one of the reasons DARPA’s Project FALCON (2003) and the Air Force’s ICBM-based Conventional Prompt Global Strike (2010) programs were canceled.
Even in the short hairs, a rocket deploying a cargo vessel may look just like a rocket deploying a hypersonic vehicle, which would put the decision calculus squarely in the hands of adversaries. “Oops, it looked like a missile to us.”
This sounds like more bad than good, but it's really too soon to tell. Like we said, we love the ambition and the Air Force is long overdue to go after these types of things. Let's hope Congress loves it too and funds the research.