WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory boosted the prominence of its Rocket Cargo initiative to deliver freight on commercial rockets to anywhere on Earth in under an hour, naming it the lab’s fourth Vanguard program.

AFRL, which noted the designation in the Air Force fiscal 2022 budget request released last week, uses its Vanguard programs to pursue transformational technologies, including next-generation navigation satellites or a swarm of networked munitions that can autonomously attack multiple targets simultaneously. The Air Force spent $9.7 million on Rocket Cargo in FY21. For FY22, the Air Force asked for $47.9 million.

In February, AFRL’s commander said the lab was looking to accelerate development of its three Vanguard programs while adding more in the coming years — and now Rocket Cargo has taken that first new Vanguard spot.

Essentially, AFRL wants to leverage the development of large, reusable commercial rockets for cargo transport, with the stated goal of delivering 100 tons of material anywhere on the planet in 60 minutes or less.

“Rocket Cargo will demonstrate new trajectories and ways to fly large rockets, the ability to land rockets at austere locations, and design and test an ejectable pod for air drop,” the budget proposal read.

Rocket-powered cargo delivery isn’t a new concept, and the Air Force confirmed that it was flirting with the idea in 2018. At the time, officials acknowledged that the service was in talks about the concept with multiple businesses, including SpaceX, a company at the forefront in developing reusable rockets that can take off and land.

Then in October, U.S. Transportation Command revealed that it would test the concept with SpaceX — possibly as early as 2021. TRANSCOM acknowledged that it had entered into a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA, with SpaceX in March 2020, and had entered another agreement with commercial space architecture firm xArc in April 2020. Those agreements did not come with federal funding.

The Air Force noted in its budget request that if successful, Rocket Cargo would replace the existing TRANSCOM Strategic Airlift mission as a cheaper, faster alternative.

As part of this Vanguard program, AFRL will not build, design or develop the actual rockets. Rather, the lab will work on the enabling technologies that will integrate reusable commercial rockets with DoD logistics. That effort includes developing new designs for quickly loading and unloading rockets, creating new ways to take off from unusual locations, designing novel trajectories and investigating the potential of air-dropped payloads. Those efforts will largely take place through modeling, simulation and analysis.

If approved, the requested funding would help the AFRL demonstrate an initial one-way transport capability to an austere location with a commercial rocket. AFRL also expects to issue a solicitation and award contracts in FY22.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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