WASHINGTON — The Defense Innovation Unit is seeking pitches from commercial space companies to provide “novel” launch capabilities for delivering cargo around the globe, into space and within space, from one orbit to another.

The Pentagon’s commercial innovation hub released a solicitation June 30 for a Novel Responsive Space Delivery effort, which aims to work with companies to prototype launch systems that can deliver cargo “to, from and through space.”

“Awarded companies will prototype autonomous delivery for one or more of three distinct modalities: from Earth to a mission-designed orbit or trajectory in space, orbital return from space to Earth to a precise point of recovery and through space from one orbit to another,” DIU said in its solicitation.

The Defense Department wants to be an early adopter of commercial rocket transport capabilities. The ability to quickly deliver cargo or personnel anywhere on Earth could have utility for near-term operations, including in the Indo-Pacific region, where island chains and large bodies of water present a mobility challenge.

The department has been working to mature an operational concept and acquisition strategy for acquiring these types of launch services since 2018, when U.S. Transportation Command started partnering with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, VOX Space and Rocket Lab USA through cooperative research and development agreements.

In 2021, the Air Force Research Laboratory started a program called Rocket Cargo to explore questions around feasibility, affordability and the mechanics of point-to-point space transport. The lab awarded SpaceX a $102 million contract in 2022 to provide data from flight tests of its Starship rocket, a 400-foot-tall reusable launch vehicle designed to carry people and cargo to and from space, or to fixed points around the world.

The Space Force, which would ultimately decide whether to formalize the effort, hopes to have a program in place by 2026.

DIU’s solicitation appears to move those efforts forward by calling for “flight-ready” proposals within two years of a contract award. The notice emphasizes the importance of mature, cost-effective solutions that can move large amounts and varied types of cargo. It also seeks proposals with a strong commercial business case and whose systems are designed to minimize the creation of debris on orbit.

During the first phase of the program, DIU will analyze the commercial viability of the selected proposals and refine concepts for operating the launch vehicles for cargo delivery. Later phases will focus on demonstrating specific capabilities like delivering large payloads to precise locations and the utility of some proposals for rescue or disaster response.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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