Rocket Lab announced Tuesday that it signed an agreement with the United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) that could potentially see its small launcher Electron rocket and future medium-lift Neutron rocket delivering cargo to different locations on Earth. Rocket Lab is also considering its Photon rocket as a platform for on-orbit cargo depots and as a delivery re-entry vehicle.
“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 founder and CEO Peter Beck said in a statement.
Rocket Lab’s 59-foot-tall (18-meter-tall) Electron rocket has already flown 29 times, while the larger Neutron rocket is expected to start launching to space in 2024 with a payload capacity of 13 tons. Meanwhile, the company’s Photon upper stage recently launched NASA’s CAPSTONE mission to the Moon.
The U.S. Air Force’s rocket cargo project was announced last year as a way to deliver material, and possibly personnel, across the globe within hours using space launch vehicles. The Air Force wants to do that using commercial rockets, having already signed a similar deal with SpaceX earlier this year worth $102 million, and signing Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin to a deal late last year.
Rocket Lab is the latest to sign on for the rocket delivery project, along with Sierra Space. The Nevada-based private space company also announced a deal with the U.S. Air Force on Thursday to use its Dream Chaser spaceplane, which is still being developed, for hypersonic point-to-point transportation.
“USTRANSCOM and its global Combatant Command customers have been constrained to logistics at the speed of conventional aircraft—or often far less—for their entire history,” said Jamie Malak, the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement’s project lead at the Air Force Research Laboratory. “Now we can look to transport critical military cargo an order of magnitude faster than ever before.”
The idea of using space launch vehicles to transport cargo for the U.S. military has been around for a while, but the recent development in commercial spaceflight was the push needed to take the project off the ground. “The reason we’re doing it now is because it looks like the technology may have caught up with a good idea,” Greg Spanjers, the Rocket Cargo program manager at AFRL, said in a statement at the time it was announced.