Rocket Lab and Sierra Space have signed separate agreements with the US Department of Defense (DOD) to explore how their respective flight systems — Rocket Lab’s Electron and Neutron rockets, Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane — can be used for superfast delivery of cargo on Earth.
The agreements are what are known as Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), a means of facilitating research and development work between the government and non-governmental organizations such as start-ups and private companies. These specific CRADAs are under the United States Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), an agency under the DOD umbrella.
Under its agreement, Sierra Space and the military will jointly explore the use of its Dream Chaser hypersonic space transport aircraft for ground cargo and personnel delivery. Under Rocket Lab’s agreement, it will work with the military to investigate the use of the Electron and Neutron launch vehicles, also for cargo delivery.
Although Electron has successfully reached orbit multiple times, both Neutron and Dream Chaser are still under development.
“Point-to-point space transportation offers a new opportunity to rapidly move equipment 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 are excited to collaborate with USTRANSCOM on this forward-thinking, innovative research program that could ultimately change the way the Department of Defense looks at logistics response options.”
The two CRADAs are not limited to vehicles. The military is also interested in how cargo pods — specifically Sierra Space’s Shooting Star cargo module and Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft — could also be used to provide ultra-high-speed logistics.
The two agreements are part of the Air Force’s Rocket Cargo Project, launched last June to explore how technology in the space industry can be used to provide fast and cheap supplies to the military. This is just the latest example of the government engaging private industry as a research partner rather than developing the technology itself. Ultimately, the government wants to use this project and others like it to “be the first customer to provide the new commercial opportunity through service leasing.”
As the Air Force acknowledges in a statement about the new Vanguard program, “Delivery of cargo via rocket transport is not a new concept.” However, it goes on to say that the sharp reduction in launch costs combined with greater payload capability are made rocketry a more enticing prospect for ground delivery.