Companies backed by Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson and others have some unusual ideas on how to move stuff around the world faster.
Now here’s a novel way to solve the supply chain problem.
The U.S. military is reportedly signing deals with commercial rocket companies to explore the idea of using rockets typically tasked with launching satellites or astronauts into space to shuttle military cargo around the world at record speeds.
CNN Business reported this week that companies tapped by the military that are exploring ways to bring that idea to fruition include Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and, most recently, Rocket Lab (RKLB).
The idea is to find a way to move military supplies and equipment from one part of the world to the other in a fraction of the time it currently takes to ship those parts and equipment by sea, air and land.
At the same time, the concept — while nowhere near an actuality — could feasibly be used to move other non-military goods around the globe in a fraction of the time, something the commercial space sector is exploring intently.
Just-in-Time Delivery by … Rocket?
How would it work? Rather than rockets leaving their freight in Earth’s orbit, the program aims to use them to get weapons, supplies or perhaps even people from one country to another at speeds far surpassing that of other types of transportation, specifically airplanes.
That’s because rockets, in addition to more thrust and speed, shoot into the high atmosphere where there is much less air to cut through. With less air drag, they can go much faster than something that needs air to move, like a jet.
The tradeoff, however, is that rockets tend to be far more expensive than aircraft, according to CNN Business.
“Imagine traveling from the continental United States to anywhere in the Pacific region and measuring your transit time in minutes,” an August press release from the military’s U.S. Transportation Command quoted in the CNN Business report said.
“Picture the U.S. delivering assistance to an ally needing disaster relief, or combating an adversary planning provocative actions against U.S. national interests at rocket-speed.”
An Out-of-This-World Supply-Chain Solution
It’s a similar idea to one employed by the largest militaries in the world for decades, that of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. But while those are designed to slam into the Earth at hypersonic speeds when they reach their target, the idea here is for the payload to come to a soft and safe landing.
The contracts fall under a program headed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, simply called “Rocket Cargo.” And it’s one of the Air Force Department’s four “Vanguard Programs,” which are high-profile projects pegged for accelerated development, according to CNN Business.
The military’s current investment in the program is “small,” according to a May statement from Air Force deputy assistant secretary Kristen Baldwin, though the goal is for the military to influence “early commercial design efforts and leverages $5-10B ongoing industry and NASA investments.”
The idea of using rockets for point-to-point travel on Earth isn’t new. SpaceX, for example, has advertised that its forthcoming Starship rocket could be used to shuttle paying customers from New York to Shanghai in 40 minutes.
For now, commercial flights across the world in short periods of time, when they do kick off again thanks to the development of new supersonic jets by Denver-based Boom Supersonic that American Airlines (AAL) and others have already placed orders for, will likely remain below the stratosphere.