NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Blue Origin could become the second U.S. rocket company to sign a cooperative agreement with the U.S. military to examine how space vehicles might be used to transport cargo around the world.
“We’re in conversations with U.S. Transportation Command,” Thomas Martin, Blue Origin’s director of national security programs, said Oct. 20 at the National Defense Transportation Association’s fall conference.
Martin spoke during a panel discussion on the role of space in military logistics.
U.S. Transportation Command, which oversees global military logistics operations, last year signed a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA, with SpaceX and with Exploration Architecture Corp. (XArc) to study what it would take to integrate space rockets into the military transportation network.
Martin said Blue Origin formally responded to a request for information issued by Transportation Command but has yet to decide whether to move forward with a CRADA.
Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne, deputy commander of U.S. Transportation Command, said the CRADAs with SpaceX and XArc were the result of conversations he had in 2018 with the former head of the command Gen. Stephen Lyons.
Lyons had read about Elon Musk’s vision of establishing a permanent human presence on Mars, with SpaceX’s Starship rockets carrying people and massive loads of cargo to and from the red planet. Mewbourne said Lyons was intrigued by this concept not only for interplanetary lift but for terrestrial point to point logistics. “And that sort of just got the juices flowing and opened the door to where we are today,” he said.
“We are hoping to find other partners that want to join us in a journey of discovery,” Mewbourne said.
Under the CRADAs, information is shared but the government does not commit to buying anything. U.S. Transportation Command, as the user of mobility services, will inform the newly created “rocket cargo” program led by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the U.S. Space Force. The Air Force in its budget proposal for fiscal year 2022 is seeking $47.9 million to conduct studies and rocket cargo demonstrations.
Mewbourne said he could not predict if or when a demonstration will take place. “We have to go at the pace of industry,” he said. “What they’re doing is pioneering work.”
SpaceX is moving forward with the development of Starship but the vehicle is not expected to fly until next year. Blue Origin’s heavy lift rocket New Glenn is at least a year away from its first orbital launch.
The capabilities of the rockets in fact is the least of the concerns in this project, Mewbourne noted.
There is no question that a rocket could travel from Los Angeles to Guam — a trip that takes 15 hours by plane — in 40 minutes, he said. But the issue is how rockets get integrated into the transportation and supply chain.
“Space travel itself honestly might be the easier part,” he said. “But how do we connect this global transportation network that we have, with the launch and recovery of a spacecraft?”
That is what ultimately will determine if rockets will be used at all. If the flight takes 40 minutes but it takes days to orchestrate operations on the front and back ends, the whole concept becomes superfluous, he said.
Challenges for the industry
Martin said Blue Origin has been looking at the point-to-point space transportation market and there are still major questions to be answered.
The military’s thinking is that rockets would provide a fast-response logistics capability to move cargo during emergencies. But the reality in the space industry is that “it takes us about two years from when the customer says they want to get something into space to when it actually launches. So we have a lot to learn from TRANSCOM.”
Having reliable reusable rockets will be key to be able to perform this service, he said.
With its suborbital New Shepard reusable launch vehicle created for space tourism, Blue Origin is “learning a lot about how you launch that thing quickly,” said Martin. “We’re directly applying what we’re learning to our New Glenn,” a much larger rocket with a reusable first stage. A long term goal is to make a reusable upper stage, he said.
Reusable stages and capsules that deploy parachutes to land are among the technologies that might be needed to do point-to-point cargo deliveries, he said. Blue Origin’s lunar lander technology developed for NASA also could be relevant.
“We’re testing sensors that are going to allow us to land on an unprepared lunar surface where there may be rocks, boulders. That looks a whole lot like landing in a disaster zone.”
A video animation shown at the conference by Brig Gen John Olson, mobilization assistant to the chief of space operations of U.S. Space Force, showed a series of rockets packed with cargo pallets lifting off from a spaceport and landing in the middle of a disaster stricken area to deliver emergency relief supplies.
To bring that vision to reality, the industry is going to have to figure out fundamental tasks such as how to encapsulate cargo, how it gets to the launch site, how a rocket or capsule lands in an austere area with no infrastructure, and how pallets are unloaded and distributed, Martin said. “We are not at the Star Trek point yet.”
“There’s a lot we have to solve to make rockets anything like aircraft flying operations,” he said. “This is the work of decades and we’re taking those first baby steps.”
Despite these challenges, Martin said he sees the U.S. military as a more attractive market for point-to-point space transportation than the commercial sector. “I think the government’s got a lot of ideas of how it could work from a from a military perspective.” There are not many use cases in the commercial sector, he added. “It is a difficult market but we’re starting to study it.”
Sam Ximenes, founder and CEO of XArc, said the company is helping U.S. Transportation Command “understand the ground logistics” of using rockets for transportation.
One concept, for example, involves the use of aerial drones to transfer cargo from large ships like Starship to the customers on the ground. XArc also is investigating the idea of a “rocket hospital” robotic module that autonomously deploys in a disaster area and is staffed by local medical personnel, said Ximenes.
The deployable hospital module already is being used for airlift deployments, he said. “This can also be adapted to rocket cargo.”