SpaceX has partnered with the U.S. Military to study joint cargo transportation efforts using the private spaceflight company’s Starship rockets. The cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA), also featuring Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc), is a voluntary effort wherein the participants donate time and resources to help develop “use cases” involving their technology. If successfully completed and the findings implemented, SpaceX’s rockets would deliver emergency military cargo anywhere in the world in under an hour.
“As industry advances to overcome these challenges and decrease costs, a space transportation capability to put a crucial cargo quickly on target at considerable distances makes it an attractive alternative,” remarked Vice Admiral Dee Mewbourne, the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) Deputy Commander, as reported by SpaceNews. “I had no sense for how fast SpaceX was moving, but I’ve received their update and I can tell you they are moving very rapidly in this area,” explained General Stephen Lyons, Commander of TRANSCOM. “Think about moving the equivalent of a C-17 payload anywhere on the globe in less than an hour.”
The joint study was announced at the National Defense Transportation Association’s virtual conference last week.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) launched “Project Airbridge,” partnering with commercial air cargo companies to bring millions of medical supplies into the country. The effort accelerated supply transport from the conventional 30-40 days shipping time frame to a two-day process via airplanes, and a total of around 250 flights were completed before the project was phased out in June. The recent US Military-SpaceX study would likely include case study solutions for scenarios like Project Airbridge, possibly reducing both the time and flights required to transport the tons of supplies that were needed.
The technology involved in the US Military-SpaceX CRADA was first discussed in detail by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in 2017 at the International Astronautical Congress. A video concept showed passengers in New York City ferrying to a floating platform where they would board a Starship-class rocket for a 40-minute trip to Shanghai. “So, most of what people consider to be long distance trips would be completed in less than half an hour,” Musk said in the presentation. COO and President Gwynne Shotwell gave a Ted Talk in 2018 further discussing the technology and its implications for future civilian travel.
Using Starship’s eventual point-to-point transportation capabilities in a military capacity were teased at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference 2019. During the event, Shotwell appeared on a panel discussing the service’s efforts to modernize forces by bringing more innovation into their procurement process. “We’re talking to the Army about Starlink and Starship,” the COO revealed in comments to SpaceNews. SpaceX had previously revealed it had discussed the technology with the US Air Force in 2018. This most recent study announcement seems to formalize the parties’ interest in working with one another.