Point-To-Point Rocket Transportation
A Massive Market, Just Over The Horizon
There's a high-impact, space-enabled technology that is quietly being matured in the background of the space industry. The capability is still in the realm of science fiction, but if successful it would likely touch the lives of nearly everyone on Earth. I'm talking about point-to-point rocket travel.
Source: Air Force Research Labs
I know, it sounds crazy. The idea of sending a package halfway around the world by loading it into a rocket's cargo hull seems technically farfetched and exorbitantly expensive. More terrifying is the idea of watching a loved-one climb into the passenger seat of one of those vehicles. However, trends and signals over the past couple of years suggest to me that we should be taking the subject just a little more seriously. I would argue that as the industry works towards full rocket reusability, it is simultaneously building the underlying technology for point-to-point delivery. Furthermore, real dollars are starting to be spent on the technology, both from those innovating the capability and those looking to purchase it.
This newsletter will discuss where we stand currently in the domain of point-to-point rocket travel, who's spending money to mature the technology, and why it would be so impactful if it comes to fruition.
How We Got Here
Point-to-point rocket travel most recently entered public awareness in 2017, when Elon Musk and SpaceX released a video of their next-generation rocket (which at the time had just been renamed from BFR to Starship) taking passengers from New York to Shanghai in 39 minutes.
Nearly six years after that video was published, and only one week ago, we witnessed the first Starship orbital launch attempt. A key to Starship is full reusability of both the first and second stages. Full reusability for orbital launches also happens to be the enabling technology of point-to-point rocket travel. The technology to precisely land a high-speed second stage after deploying payload into orbit could instead be repurposed to hold onto that cargo (rather than dropping it in orbit) and deliver it to wherever the second stage touches down on Earth's surface. As a result, an orbital Starship with second-stage recovery would inherently de-risk much of the most challenging technology needed to make point-to-point rocket launch a reality.
Starship orbital launch attempt on April 20th. Source: SpaceX
Furthermore, SpaceX isn't the only organization building towards reusability. Rocket Lab's next-generation Neutron vehicle is also planned to have first-stage reusable and it has been over a year since the company broke ground on the Neutron production facility in Virginia. Additionally, Relativity is regularly conducting engine testing for its Terran R vehicle which is built for first-stage reusability and ultimately second-stage reuse down the road.
Furthermore, another organization already working towards first and second-stage reuse is Stoke Space, which has its own innovative methods for developing second-stage rapid reusability by actively cooling the heat shield upon reentry.
With so many "shots on goal" for developing fully reusable rockets, it seems plausible that we could have the capability within the next five or so years. This means we could have point-to-point rocket cargo technology not too far after.
Follow The Money
Another powerful signal regarding point-to-point rocket travel is the amount of effort and money the Department of Air Force is investing toward becoming a customer.
Through the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL), the Department of Air Force runs a number of what they call Vanguard programs. These programs are aimed to deliver long-term, "remarkable new capabilities that provide warfighters with superior advantages in the battlefield". As of early 2021, there were three such Vanguard programs, related to autonomy for unmanned aerial vehicles (called Skyborg), next-generation GPS technology (called NTS-3), and an integrated autonomous weapon system (called Golden Horde). In 2021, the Air Force added a fourth Vanguard program, called Rocket Cargo. The program enables a path for the Air Force and Space Force to work with industry on becoming a customer of this technology.
In speaking about the Rocket Cargo program, the Space Force's highest leadership has been vocal about its interest. In 2021, the Chief of Space Operations Gen. John "Jay" Raymond said, “Rocket Cargo will fundamentally alter the rapid logistics landscape, connecting materiel to joint warfighters in a fraction of the time it takes today. In the event of conflict or humanitarian crisis, the Space Force will be able to provide our national leadership with an independent option to achieve strategic objectives from space.” Rocket Cargo was also a repeated focus topic at Space Systems Command's Space Mobility Conference in February 2023. At the event, the program executive officer for Space System Command's Assured Access to Space directorate, General Purdy, stated about Rocket Cargo, "We absolutely would buy this as a service."
To back it up, AFRL started funding the Rocket Cargo program in FY2021 with $9.1M. In 2022, that funding stepped up significantly and the Rocket Cargo program awarded SpaceX a $102M, five-year contract to mature the capability to rapidly transport military cargo and humanitarian aid around the world onboard a rocket. AFRL has also signed cooperative research and development agreements (CRADA's) with Rocket Lab, Blue Origin, Sierra Space, and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc) to exchange data information regarding point-to-point travel capabilities.
On the Rocket Cargo program, AFRL is closely partnered with US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), Space Force Futures & Integration, Air Force Futures, formerly the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC), and Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). In discussing how the technology will be matured, the program lead for the Vanguard Rocket Cargo Program, Gerg Spanjers, said “AFRL will be leveraging several commercial demonstration launches over the next few years to collect the data.” He added that The Air Force “does not drive this schedule but rather will collect data whenever SpaceX flies relevant missions.”
Why It's So Valuable
One of the tougher realities of the space industry is that it is still a nascent commercial ecosystem. That is to say, there aren't many super-massive markets where you can build ten-billion-dollar, or even hundred-billion-dollar companies. The industry is growing and we'll get there, but the at the moment, the only real way to do that is in communications, moving bits around the Earth to satisfy the unrelenting demand for data.
What is so exciting to me about point-to-point rocket travel is that it offers space companies the opportunity to tap into another such market. The market for global freight is enormous. In fact, enormous doesn't really do it justice. The global cargo shipping market size is around $2.2T, estimated to reach $4.2T by 2031. When defining the market size of point-to-point rocket cargo though, perhaps it makes sense to focus on only the most time-sensitive of global freight. In that case, even the market for air freight is $287B, expected to grow to $413B by 2028. Any way you slice it, there's a lot of money in getting things quickly from A to B all around the globe, far more money than governments and corporations currently spend on launching things into orbit. Those are the kind of big, juicy markets that space companies can target in order to attract more investment and grow more aggressively.
While the market for point-to-point rocket travel could be enormous, the bottom line is that it only matters if the technology is feasible at a price point that doesn't break the bank. Whether or not that's the case will depend largely on the success of launch companies aiming to develop fully reusable rockets in the next few years. The likelihood of that reality is still unknown. However, one thing we can say today, which we couldn't five or ten years ago, is that multiple teams of very smart people are giving it their best shot.