The coronavirus pandemic shined a light on the shortfalls of the global supply chain with backlogs and delays, and the U.S. government is looking to mitigate those challenges in a few ways: first, by investing in infrastructure for existing transportation, but also by looking to the stars.
Long Beach-based manufacturer and launch service provider Rocket Lab on Tuesday announced a new research and development agreement with the U.S. Transportation Command to explore the possibility of using the firm’s Electron and Neutron launch vehicles to transport cargo around the world.
“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,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a statement.
The agreement also will explore the use of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft to establish on-orbit cargo depots and deliver re-entry capability, according to the announcement. The Photon’s maiden mission in July was a success, having orbited the Earth 37 times in six days before deploying NASA’s CAPSTONE satellite on a ballistic lunar transfer trajectory to the moon.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has proven itself as a reliable launch vehicle capable of rapid successive missions. Since its first test launch in May 2017, the firm has successfully put 149 satellites into space across 29 launches. Most recently, the company completed three missions in the span of five weeks, a record launch cadence for Rocket Lab.
In December, Rocket Lab unveiled the plans for its next-generation 8-ton payload class Neutron launch vehicle. The new rocket is capable of carrying a much larger payload than the Electron—28,660 pounds compared to 661 pounds—“making it a perfect fit to enable fast development of vital resources while eliminating the en-route stops and air refueling required by air cargo solutions,” Beck said.
The Rocket Cargo effort is the fourth Vanguard program as part of the Air Force’s 2030 Science and Technology strategy. Rocket Cargo was announced on June 4 of last year, with the U.S. Space Force designated as the lead service for the program.
The Air Force Research Laboratory is leading the effort, while the Space and Missile Systems Center serves as the program executive officer.
Delivering cargo via rocket is not a new concept, according to an Air Force press release, but the historically high costs of launch and small payload capability have been prohibitive until firms like Rocket Lab and SpaceX created the new generation of rockets that has lowered price points and expanded payload size.
While Beck and his company see the benefits of the partnership from a commercial and humanitarian vantage point, the Department of Defense is also focused on military applications.
“Rapid logistics underpins our ability to project power,” Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, Jr., commander of Air Force Materiel Command said last year. “That is the fundamental motivation for initiating the Rocket Cargo program.”