Space Logistics Takes Flight

Embracing Lunar Ambitions to Satellite Deliveries

By Gary Burrows
In the developing niche of space logistics, industry practitioners apply often conventional – though highly sensitive and technical – strategies and operations towards out-of-this-world cargoes and ultimately, space travels.

Strategies of delivering tomorrow’s advancements was the concluding webinar topic during Breakbulk Americas: The Digital Special Nov. 4.

“It still moves on the same modes of transportation,” said Jeff Bitner, senior transportation analyst, Northrop Grumman Corp. and a 28-year logistics veteran. “It is different in that many loads are heavier and larger, they’re one of a kind and very valuable. You’re not moving bags of potatoes.

Bitner is the man behind the so-called Rocket Train, which Northrup Grumman employs to haul heavy-lift Space Launch Systems, or SLS, from its manufacturing facility in Promontory, Utah, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to be deployed in NASA’s Artemis next-generation lunar program, which is projected for its first launch in 2021.

The Rocket Train is the same one that was used to haul for the Space Shuttle program beginning in the early 1980s, and was detailed in Breakbulk magazine Issue 5 / 2020 (“Prepare for Launch,” page 14).

The train hauled SLS boosters over the summer for the 700,000-pound vehicle. The train, pulled by special Union Pacific engines, employs 200-ton heavy-duty flatbed rail cars with protective covers – 10 boosters on 10 flatcars – interspersed with 50,000 pounds of ballast between the cars to stabilize the load. The train switches from the UP system to Norfolk Southern in Tennessee, then to the Florida East Coast Railway in Jacksonville, once it reaches Florida.

“There’s lots of coordination,” Bitner said. This includes confirming clearances, and monitoring the journey with satellite modeling.

With the development of NASA’s Artemis project, the space agency is an important customer. Artemis’ goal is to land the first woman and next man back on the surface of the moon by 2024, following a manned mission in 2021, a second flight that would actually orbit the moon, before Artemis 3 takes that giant step onto the lunar surface. Beyond the moon, the program’s next step would be to land on Mars.

Lara Kearney, deputy program manager, Gateway Logistics Services, NASA Johnson Space Center, focuses on the Gateway aspect of the Artemis program. She is based at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The Gateway is effectively the delivery truck for the lunar program, delivering food, clothing, consumables, spacesuits, medical equipment, oxygen, fuel and scientific experiments, and then hauls away the trash when it returns to earth.

The Gateway module will make multiple trips to and from the moon, allowing some of its elements to be reused, she said.

Like a major industrial project, the schedule for a spacecraft from design to build takes four to five years. Each piece is often unique due to the construction time, so one of-a-kind components cannot simply be replaced if something happens during shipping.

“It’s intriguing just to do things nobody has ever done before. Problems to solve that no one tried to tackle before. You have to be creative, flexible as things change quickly as the team always tries to adjust to be successful.” Kearney said.

While historically being the first to solve problems, NASA has taken a commercial step in selecting SpaceX as the first U.S. commercial provider to work on Gateway.
“As a NASA employee … the only way to do it was do it ourselves,” she said. “It’s exciting to see other companies come into the business. Our job is to finish doing what we’ve always done, hand it off to people who can do it better, faster and cheaper than ourselves. The industry is exploding.”

A separate component of the Artemis program is the Orion space craft that will take crews and goods to and from the lunar surface near the moon’s south pole, where water ice has been discovered.

Ben Martin, logistics and inventory manager, Spaceflight, describes his business as a “ride share” for satellites. “We take many customers and put them on a single-launch vehicle.”

“It’s a bit unique, at least in the space industry. From the logistics side, I don’t think we’re actually that unique,” he said. “A lot of this uses traditional methods.”

Martin is the sole person overseeing all logistics aspects of Spaceflight’s business – export/import, trade compliance, shipping, freight forwarding.

“You fly it or truck it. But those don’t change the end goal,” he said. “The difference is there’s a lot more to consider or needs to be considered when planning these shipments. They’re dangerous goods and require trade compliance, security, engineering, temperature control. They’re high-value, and all the little things that come after that. If you don’t factor for it all, something can happen in orbit.”

Spaceflight customers are largely satellite operators or manufacturers. The cost of satellites, as well as the size of them, has come down dramatically, as has the cost of launches – “though not at the same rate” – and a number of newcomers have entered the market, he said.

“Our concept is similar to Uber, with multiple people in one vehicle. We put multiple customers on a single launch,” Martin explained. While the launch vehicle is located in New Zealand, customers come from Europe, Japan and other regions. Often the shipments must come to the U.S. first to be consolidated and then shipped out, so the cargoes can be moving around the world multiple times.

“It’s a unique concept we’re working hard to improve,” he said. Spaceflight has “people good at making satellites and people who are good at making rockets. It’s complex on each side. We have people who are very good at the middle part.”

The Penultimate Frontier

If, as Capt. James Tiberius Kirk has said, space is the final frontier, heavy-lift airfreight provider Volga-Dnepr is an important link between earth and space for a growing number of aerospace shipments.

Peter Baldauf, commercial director, has been in the air freight industry for 25 years, focusing on high-tech, automotive and aerospace for the Russian heavy-haul air freight carrier.

Volga-Dnepr has hauled satellites, solid rocket boosters, engines, payload fairings, subsystems, solar arrays, “all facets of space travel,” he said. The carrier’s key heavy haulers are its fleet of Antonov 124s and its IL-76, but it boasts the most diverse fleet of cargo planes in the industry.

“It’s incredibly satisfying to take a project from an email RFQ (request for quote) to execution. I’m a very hands-on person, and I get to go beyond the desk and emails to be with customers, cargo, planes and crew and be part of making it happen.”

It’s key, Baldauf said, that Volga-Dnepr “speaks the customers’ language and understands the needs and unique nature” of each space cargo component. “They have to be handled with kid gloves, there’s a lot of planning before execution.”

The carrier has a dedicated load planner in Houston who creates a virtual load plan. There are scenarios in which heavy payloads are flown to remote places, such as satellites to Bariloche, which has a very short runway and unfavorable winds. It requires six to eight months from kickoff meeting, through operations design review to actual execution. The plan requires weather analysis, and temperature reports to get cargo off the ground and to the destination.

“It’s like build a car in your living room, then trying to get it out,” Baldauf said.
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