Rocket Lab and Sierra Space have signed separate agreements with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to explore how their respective flight systems -- Rocket Lab's Electron and Neutron rockets, Sierra Space's Dream Chaser spaceplane -- could be used for superfast cargo delivery on Earth.
The agreements are what’s known as Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), a vehicle to facilitate R&D work between the government and nongovernmental entities like startups and private companies. These specific CRADAs are with the U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), an agency under the aegis of the DOD.
Under its agreement, Sierra Space and the military will jointly explore using its Dream Chaser plane for hypersonic space transportation for terrestrial cargo and personnel delivery. Under Rocket Lab’s agreement, it will work with the military to investigate using the Electron and Neutron launch vehicles, also for cargo delivery.
While Electron has successfully reached orbit numerous times, both Neutron and Dream Chaser are still under development.
“Point-to-point space transportation offers a new ability to move equipment quickly around the world in hours, enabling a faster response to global emergencies and natural disasters,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. “We’re excited to be collaborating with USTRANSCOM on this forward-thinking, innovative research program that could ultimately shift the way the Department of Defense considers logistics response options.”
The two CRADAs aren’t limited to the transportation vehicles. The military is also interested in how cargo capsules -- specifically, Sierra Space’s Shooting Star cargo module and Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft -- can be used to enable ultra-high-speed logistics, as well.
The two agreements are part of the Air Force’s Rocket Cargo project, launched in June of last year, to explore how space industry tech can be used to enable fast, cheap deliveries for the military. It’s just the latest example of the government engaging private industry as a research partner, rather than developing the tech itself. Eventually, the government wants to use this project and others like it to “be the first customer procuring the new commercial capability through service leases.”
As the Air Force acknowledges in a statement on the new Vanguard program, “Delivering cargo via rocket transportation is not a new concept.” However, it goes on to state that the sharp decreases in the cost of launch, combined with higher payload capability, have made rocketry a more enticing prospect for terrestrial delivery.