Space is taking on more responsibilities for the U.S. military, from command and control to missile warning. Next on the agenda: cargo.
In a June 30 solicitation, the Defense Innovation Unit is seeking “novel commercial solutions that enable responsive and precise point-to-point delivery of cargo to, from, and through space.”
DIU was founded to adopt commercial technology and non-traditional suppliers by bypassing conventional acquisition processes.
“Rocket cargo” is already being explored by U.S. Transportation Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory, but those efforts are focused on point-to-point logistics for heavy payloads up to 100 tons. The aim is to support austere operating locations in the midst of future conflict with uncrewed space vehicles, eliminating the need for overflight rights or putting air or space crews at risk.
DIU is focused on smaller payloads, from tens to hundreds of kilograms. It aims to conduct proof-of-concept demonstrations of rockets to deliver cargo to objects to orbit, deliver cargo from one orbit to another, or use space to deliver cargo to a point on Earth.
“The ability to rapidly re-constitute space-based capabilities or re-supply payloads or cargo at precise locations for time-sensitive logistics (in-space or terrestrially) is a critical but presently non-existent capability,” the DIU said. “Sustaining isolated or remote platforms or teams of people affordably and at scale additionally requires evaluation of emerging technology solutions that potentially satisfy commercial, civil, and national security needs.”
The Space Force has a future concept of “tactically responsive space” which could use commercial space launch in a time of crisis. Like the Merchant Marine, which can be tasked to deliver materiel in a time of war and commercial cargo carriers, which TRANSCOM leveraged when moving cargo for Ukraine to Europe after Russia’s February 2022 invasion, space may also have rapid-fire needs. “There is a need to deliver and return payloads and cargo accurately, safely, and on demand” and it wants proposals that are viable even without demand from the DOD.
Following the model of the Space Development Agency, which is pursuing a rapid-acquisition strategy for satellites, DIU seeks a solution that could meet a “lead time, in hours or days, from order to launch and orbital insertion,” and that is “flight-ready” in 24 months. DIU asked for submissions by July 17, a scant two weeks, and expects responding companies to show elements of hardware within 90 days of contracting.
Tim Ryan, the Senior Resident Fellow for Space Studies at AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said DIU’s premise makes clear the growing importance of space not just in the Space Force, but throughout the Department of Defense.
If successful, the concepts DIU hopes to demonstrate could expand to incorporate larger payloads and conduct “suborbital delivery of cargo,” both for military objectives and potentially to assist in disaster response in the future.