Blue Origin is looking to get 2022 started on the right foot. After fighting NASA and SpaceX for most of 2021, the company appears to have found some success, bagging a major deal with the United States military.
Testing the Possibility of Rocket-Assisted Payloads
Late last month, the Washington-based private aerospace company announced it had signed a contract agreement with the United States military to explore the possibility of using its rockets to transport people and cargo worldwide.
The statement confirmed that Blue Origin signed a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with USTRANSCOM - the military arm that oversees global military logistics.
Under a CRADA, companies agree to share information about upcoming products and their capabilities. The U.S. government and military have not committed to making any purchases from Blue Origin. A sale will likely come once the military is satisfied with Blue Origin's capabilities.
For the rocket project, Blue Origin will analyze utility, performance, and efficiency in transporting payloads and people and airdropping cargo. All analyses will use simulations and modeling, with both parties hoping to reach a conclusive decision based on findings.
Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne, U.S. TRANSCOM's deputy commander, explained:
"Not every operation will call for logistics through space, but when we need to respond faster, or assure access in challenging environments, we recognize that space now offers a toolkit, not just a concept. We want our understanding of space transportation's potential to keep pace with the technical and operational realities that are being built now."
Hoping For a Better Result Than SpaceX
Blue Origin has targeted participation in this program for a while. In October, Thomas Martin, the company's director of national security programs, said at the National Defense Transportation Association's fall conference that they were in preliminary discussions with U.S. TRANSCOM about signing a CRADA for the rocket delivery program.
Now that the company has landed the agreement, it hopes its rockets can offer a more effective, cost-efficient way to transport military personnel and cargo.
It's worth noting that Blue Origin isn't the only company U.S. TRANSCOM has signed on. The military agency brought on SpaceX in 2020, signing a deal to explore the use of rockets to move payloads in emergencies.
At a virtual press conference, Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, U.S. TRANSCOM's commander, explained they signed a CRADA with SpaceX to study different concepts for rapid transportation through space. Lyons explained that space transportation, compared to airlift, is weight and volume-constrained, limiting military launching and recovery options.
"As industry advances to overcome these challenges and decrease costs, a space transportation capability to put a crucial cargo quickly on target at considerable distances makes it an attractive alternative." Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne added.
SpaceX deal didn't materialize into much. Blue Origin is undoubtedly shooting for better results.
Too Close to the Government?
Regardless of what happens with the military, Blue Origin will be happy to see any positive results in 2022. The company spent last year fighting NASA's award to SpaceX's human landing system (HLS).
Still, NASA named Blue Origin's Orbital Reef space station among three finalists as the agency turns to private contractors to help build replacements for the International Space Station. With over $100 million in secured funding, Blue Origin is now in early research and product development for the Orbital Reef.
However, even that project might run into hassles. Blue Origin said it plans to make the Orbital Reef usable for individuals, companies, and governments. If NASA ends up funding the project, it could blacklist some countries or companies from using the structure.
One of the many issues with the International Space Station is the inaccessibility for many countries. China and Russia are progressing with their space programs and plan to launch their own space stations.
If NASA offers to fund the Orbital Reef, the structure could struggle with the same diplomatic issues as the International Space Station. We look forward to learning how things will unfold.