Defense Innovation Unit seeks proposals to ship cargo using rockets

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.”

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.

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 in 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.