WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s interest in using space launch vehicles to quickly transport cargo and personnel around the globe has its origins in the space race of the 1950s, though technology, feasibility and cost constraints have kept the concept out of reach for decades.
A SpaceX mission scheduled to launch in March could be a significant step toward changing that.
If all goes as planned, the company’s 400-foot-tall Starship rocket will be the first fully reusable launch vehicle to reach orbit. Designed to carry people and cargo to and from space, or to fixed points around the world, Starship can lift up to 100 tons; as a comparison, a C-17 aircraft can carry about 85 tons of cargo.
The rocket is powered by SpaceX’s Raptor engines, which run on liquid methane and liquid oxygen — a more efficient, lower cost propellant source. Elon Musk, who owns the American company, predicts Starship will open the door to more regular space travel, including NASA moon missions later this decade and future deep-space exploration. The company also sees a commercial and defense market for rapid cargo delivery.
The planned mission, which doesn’t yet have a firm launch date, won’t immediately change the landscape for space travel and military logistics, but it will be the first stage in a rigorous test program. And as SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell noted in January, success might just mean avoiding a failure at the launch site.
“This first one really is a test flight,” Shotwell said Feb. 8 during the Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C. “The real goal is to not blow up the launch pad. That is success.”
SpaceX wants to move fast and, according to Shotwell, hopes to begin flying operational Starship missions later this year. The company is targeting 100 launches by 2025.
“We have designed Starship to be as much like [an] aircraft operation as we possibly can,” she said. “I’m talking about dozens, if not hundreds of launches a day. How many airplanes take off and land every day? Let’s think about space with that frame of mind.”
Rather than invest billions of dollars to develop a rocket of its own, the Defense Department wants to leverage that mindset and the technology behind it. For the last few years, U.S. Transportation Command, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Space Force have worked to ensure that when commercial companies like SpaceX are ready to offer space-enabled transport services, the DoD is the first customer in line.
Greg Spanjers manages the Air Force lab’s Rocket Cargo program, which began in 2021 to explore questions around feasibility, affordability and the mechanics of point-to-point space cargo transport. The effort is expected to eventually transition into a formal program with the Space Force. The lab awarded SpaceX a $102 million contract last year to provide flight data from Starship and support its research on landing systems as well as concepts for loading and unloading cargo.
Though SpaceX isn’t the only company with a rocket that could support a future Rocket Cargo capability, Starship is serving as the “lab bench” by providing real launch vehicle data to inform analysis. While data from the upcoming Starship launch is important, Spanjers told C4ISRNET his team is most interested in how fast SpaceX makes progress afterward.
“The question is: Do they have this thing up and running operationally in six months, or does it take them a year and a half to do?” he said. “That’ll tell us a lot about how big of a hurry we’re in, quite frankly, because we’re going to go at their speed.”
Before the department is ready to move at the speed of SpaceX, it needs to put a plan in place. Those efforts began in 2018, when Transportation Command started partnering with companies to understand capabilities under development that could support point-to-point rocket transport.
The command has issued cooperative research and development agreements to SpaceX, Blue Origin, VOX Space, Sierra Space, Virgin Orbit National Systems, Exploration Architectures and Rocket Lab USA — all companies that are developing launch capabilities, or provide support or analysis services.
The command’s work has informed Rocket Cargo analysis, which the Air Force lab plans to complete in the next three years, if not sooner, Spanjers said. At that point, it will hand off the data to Space Force leadership to determine whether they want to pursue a formal program.
Speaking Feb. 21 at the inaugural Space Mobility Conference in Orlando, Florida, Col. James Horne, the deputy director of the Space Force’s Assured Access to Space directorate said the service is “already actively planning for the program” and hopes to have it in place in 2026.
Horne noted that a Rocket Cargo capability could support operations in the Indo-Pacific region, where island chains and large bodies of water present a mobility challenge. He added that the Space Force and Air Force have discussed specific cases where rocket transport could solve unique challenges in theater, but only if it’s a quicker solution.
“We know that we’ve got to be able to do this faster than we can do it today,” Horne said. “If it takes us three weeks to load a rocket, then we’ll use a ship or an airplane.”
A lot of the Air Force lab’s early work focused on that challenge — the logistics of moving cargo. That includes questions about what should be transported by rocket, what containers to use and how to ensure the material involved can survive in a zero-gravity environment. The lab is working with several companies to design modifications for standard shipping containers to make them space-ready and to integrate those onto a launch vehicle, Spanjers said. The lab plans to start testing the containers by the end of this year.
The lab is also researching options for landing a rocket in austere locations, which is more important for military missions than commercial delivery. Relying on spaceports for launch and landing support, and then using aircraft or trucks to transport cargo to its final destination, takes away from the goal of rapid delivery, Spanjers said.
“This is only attractive to DoD if we can send the cargo to exactly where it needs to go — say, an island that just had an earthquake,” he explained.
Because SpaceX is already building Starship to land on the moon, he added, planning for austere landings on Earth may not be as ambitious as it sounds. The program has run small-scale tests at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to understand how rocket plumes, or emissions, could affect various materials at a landing site. At Edwards Air Force Base in California, the team took those materials and fired small rockets at them to observe any reactions.
Over the next year, Spanjers said, the program will closely work with the Space Force’s launch enterprise to think through the processes and infrastructure needed for an operational rocket transport capability.
Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, who leads the launch enterprise, told C4ISRNET that while the Air Force Research Lab focuses on technology and integration, the Space Force is considering what organizational structures would allow Transportation Command to take advantage of the program.
“We’re looking at making it a wholesale function,” he said in an interview.
Beyond science and technology research, the lab has teamed up with Air Force assessors to understand the cost of Rocket Cargo and the potential return on investment. Affordability is one of the Space Force’s concerns, and cost is one of the biggest barriers to the military adopting the capability.
Purdy said the service is skeptical about the cost of Rocket Cargo, but if SpaceX follows through on plans to eventually fly hundreds of Starships each year, that changes the equation.
“Affordability really is conditioned on ... does that commercial launch vehicle or commercial company actually get to the point where they’re doing rapid launches,” he said. “If any company actually gets to the point where they’re launching hundreds of times a year, that really reduces your cost.”
SpaceX projects a single Starship launch will cost $10 million in the next few years, and Musk has predicted it could eventually fall as low as $1 million. The company charges about $62 million per launch for its smaller Falcon 9 rocket.
Gary Henry, the company’s senior adviser for national security solutions, said he expects that drop in cost to happen quickly.
“We are now on a very interesting cost curve,” he said during a Feb. 21 panel at the Space Mobility Conference. “The cost element of this is going to be compelling.”
Spanjers wouldn’t disclose the program’s affordability data because it’s largely based on proprietary company information, he said. However, he added, early analysis lines up with Purdy’s suggestion.
“It’s certainly not the billion-dollar proposition that it used to be when we looked at this 10, 15, 20 years ago,” he said. “The cost of launch, cost of rockets have all come down a lot, and reusability and high launch rates have made a massive difference in what those costs look like.”
A spokesman for Transportation Command told C4ISRNET that while space transport may not initially compete with other “more traditional” delivery modes on a cost basis, the value of rapid delivery could outweigh cost concerns for some missions.
While SpaceX is on contract to provide Starship data to the Air Force lab and Transportation Command, the Pentagon is also working with other launch companies, including Blue Origin, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit National Systems.
According to Transportation Command, the launch capabilities those companies offer is diverse, with varying delivery methods, cargo capacities, fuel types and reusability options. That can make it difficult to predict what type of launch site would be needed, but it also provides options, a spokesman said.
Mark Baird, president of Virgin Orbit National Systems, told C4ISRNET the company is working on several concepts through its cooperative research and development agreement. Its LauncherOne vehicle is an aircraft-launched rocket that lifts off from a modified 747-400 carrier aircraft.
LauncherOne can’t carry as much cargo as Starship, but large loads might not be a requirement for every mission. The rocket also requires less prepared infrastructure than a launch vehicle that lifts off vertically. That allows flexibility for the system to launch from any location with a runway long enough for a 747 to take off, Baird noted.
“We aren’t fixed to any location,” he said in an interview. “If you had something pre-positioned and you needed to get it somewhere fast, that’s what we believe is our discriminator.”
Spanjers noted that Transportation Command’s cooperative research and development agreements are designed in a way that lets government and military entities share some information with other vendors. Although other companies may have smaller spacecraft or different launch approaches from Starship, he said the program wants to tailor its research for different variables, particularly when it comes to cargo.
“Our goal is to make sure we have as many vendors down the road who can provide this capability as possible,” Spanjers said. “We want to end up with cargo designs that can fit on any rocket. When another company appears, we’ll have to collect some of this data again, but if we’re doing it right, we won’t have to redesign how we’re handling the cargo.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.