LOgiSTics in Space

Supply Chain Extending to Moon, Mars, Beyond

By Paul Scott Abbott

More than a half-century after man first walked on the lunar surface, an extraterrestrial supply chain is extending back to the moon and forging beyond, offering multibillion-dollar opportunities for putting cargo in space. Indeed, without micro-precision logistics in space, the future of travel and exploration beyond Earth would, simply put, be lost in space.

Amid all of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s rocket scientists, a dedicated cadre of three-dozen experts assigned to Kennedy Space Center’s Gateway Logistics Element team is focused on building upon two decades of experience in supplying the Earth-orbiting International Space Station to bring humans and cargo to outer space destinations.

“What Gateway represents is us having that next stepping-stone to open up the doors for us to explore further and beyond,” Mark D. Wiese, logistics element manager for NASA’s Gateway program, told Breakbulk. “We’ve been moving at a tremendously rapid speed all across the agency for about the last year.

“Once we get up there,” Wiese said, “going to the moon kind of opens the door for us to be able to start to look at tapping resources outside of Earth’s gravity. If we can do that, if we can find a way to open up a new node on the logistics chain, we are accelerating beyond like we’ve never been able to do before.”

On to Mars

NASA’s phased approach calls for putting the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024, establishing a sustained human presence on and around the moon by 2028, and commencing human exploration of Mars in the 2030s. The scope of NASA’s undertakings isn’t waiting to expand, with a pair of U.S. astronauts – Christina Koch and Jessica Meir – in October 2019 becoming the first women to participate in an all-female spacewalk.

In December 2017, on the 45-year anniversary of the last crewed mission to the moon, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a directive calling for collaboration with commercial and international partners to return Americans to the moon, adding: “This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars – and perhaps, someday, to many worlds beyond.”

NASA’s Artemis program, named for the mythological twin sister of Apollo, utilizes U.S.-European Orion spacecraft and the Gateway lunar orbital platform. The program calls for an initial uncrewed flight to the moon, followed by a mission designed to deliver astronauts to the lunar surface. The Gateway craft, while orbiting the moon, is to serve as the springboard for Mars missions in addition to being the base camp for lunar exploration.

In mid-2019, NASA issued solicitations not only for the Artemis lunar landing vehicle, but also for lunar cargo delivery services, including a spacecraft to dock with the Gateway outpost in lunar orbit. The maximum value of all cargo delivery awards has been set at a whopping US$7 billion, the most ever for space cargo contracts, with plans to bring multiple companies aboard at the start and over the next 12 years to provide services during a 15-year period.

“This represents that next quantum leap in driving logistics off this planet and driving our economy and bringing private industry along,” said Wiese, who joined NASA in 2003 following five years working with the space program while employed by Science Applications International Corp., or SAIC, as a geographic information systems technician.

NASA already has selected more than a dozen U.S. companies for technology partnerships for the Artemis program. Those companies include longstanding aerospace giants Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, plus relative newcomers PayPal founder Elon Musk’s, California-based SpaceX, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin and Sparks, Nevada-headquartered Sierra Nevada Corp., as well as several much smaller firms.

‘A Really Big Leap’

“It’s a really big leap,” Wiese said, “but we’re representative of the next phase of trying to push commercialization and privatization beyond, because low Earth orbit is finally starting to take hold. We’ve brought private industry along, and they’re starting to flourish, bringing all the cargo to enable the crew to live and work and bring science up there.”

Tammy Long, a NASA public affairs officer, put it this way: “This could be the next quantum leap in logistics and freight.”

The most challenging logistical aspect as it relates to payloads, though, apparently isn’t the 250,000 miles to the moon or even the farther leap to Mars, which, on average, is 140 million miles from Earth.

“Getting cargo outside the pull of gravity is probably our biggest challenge,” Wiese said. “Launching things is tough. It takes a lot of fuel.”

Annie Meier, a Kennedy-based NASA principal investigator leading a “logistics reduction” project, told Breakbulk that, while the figure can vary depending upon ultimate destination and other factors, the typical cost for putting one tonne of cargo into low Earth orbit is about US$10 million.

“Commercial companies are trying to reduce that cost,” said Meier, a 10-year NASA veteran who holds a doctorate in chemical engineering, “but it is quite expensive to get out of Earth’s gravitational pull and put something up in space. Every pound and ounce is a lot of money to launch out of Earth’s atmosphere.”

The project, led by Meier in collaboration with external partner Blue Horizon, the Orbital Syngas/Commodity Augmentation Reactor or OSCAR for short, deploys a “trash-to-gas” converter about the size of a microwave oven designed to turn solid waste into carbon dioxide that can be converted into methane to power engines including those of lunar or planetary surface vehicles.

“If we can produce the methane from trash,” she said, “that’s a little bit less methane that we have to launch from Earth.”

Thus, reducing the cost of getting cargo outside the Earth’s gravity and, just as importantly, finding ways to productively recycle launched cargoes are likely to be part of successful private industry space logistics programs. With the advent of additive manufacturing, potential also exists for 3-D printing in space, using launched supply materials.

Microgravity ‘Wonky’

After cargo has left the Earth’s gravitational field and entered zero gravity, sometimes more precisely called microgravity, concerns related to propulsion costs for light and heavy items alike give way to uncertainties presented by weightlessness.

“Once you are in microgravity,” Meier said, “things just behave a whole lot differently. They all just behave wonky in microgravity.”

Wiese said items that are particularly heavy and/or odd-shaped may be challenging to safely get through launch, but those concerns wane beyond the Earth’s pull.

“Once we get up to space, it doesn’t take the force anymore to pull something and move something,” Wiese said. “It’s just a whole different ballgame.”

So space supply chain providers also have to deal with how cargo moves in microgravity situations. Contractors must aggregate and pack cargoes so they take up minimal space – in what Wiese termed “a super-organized closet” – and are easy for astronauts to efficiently unpack in microgravity without wasting precious crew time.

The seemingly conflicting dual challenges of getting cargoes beyond the Earth’s pull and of offering appropriate maneuverability in microgravity are being dealt with by multiple providers of supply services for the International Space Station.

Both Northrop Grumman and SpaceX have been engaged in providing supplies to the ISS since 2012, and they are to be joined in the effort by Sierra Nevada in 2021. Supply ships are now launching to the ISS on about a quarterly basis.

SpaceX also avails itself of facilities at Port Canaveral, near the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, in recovery of reusable rocket boosters the Musk-led company returns to Earth. And the new Dragon capsule of Space X is designed to return cargoes from space as well.

Science Fiction Meets Fact

Earthbound logistical advances have been applied to space and vice versa, according to Wiese. Extraterrestrial developments in precise GPS positioning, shipment tracking, autonomy and robotics “have really played down to Earth,” Wiese said, commenting: “It ends up spinning off and helping society back here on Earth. I think a lot of what we do ends up playing back and helping things on Earth.

“We’re trying to make a lot of noise in the traditional ground-based logistics world because we know there are so many synergies there that we help leverage off one another,” he said.

“If we’re pushing the economy even further, we need to really drive the innovation from all aspects of how we move things on Earth to how we move things off-planet.”

As the U.S. space program, with its partners from other nations and private industry, looks to go back to the moon and make first human forays to Mars and even farther into deep space, with hoped-for ability to mine fuel and other resources from distant orbs, Wiese is confident wide-ranging economic benefits will be derived.

“Now it’s a reality that we are able to go drive the economy beyond.” Weise said. “Science fiction meeting science fact is really close.” 

A professional journalist for nearly 50 years, U.S.-based Paul Scott Abbott has focused on transportation topics since the late 1980s.

Image credit: NASA