Tag Archives: space supply chain

Space Trucking: The Challenges Of Managing A Supply Chain That Is Truly Out of This World

We investigate the perennial deadly hazards of operating on the world’s truly most remote supply route: the ‘road’ to the International Space Station.

 Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

Are you responsible for sending your people into danger? In a new Procurious blog series, The World’s Deadliest Supply Chains, we investigate the most high-risk supply chains out there.

The fiery disintegration of a manned Russian Soyuz rocket above the steppe of Kazakhstan on October 11 highlights the perennial deadly hazards of operating on the world’s truly most remote supply route: the ‘road’ to the International Space Station orbiting between 330 and 435 kilometres above the earth.

In this case, the Soyuz occupants, US astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin, got lucky after what NASA described diplomatically as the mission’s successful “abort downrange”.

Because of a problem later identified as a faulty sensor, the launch terminated two minutes after blast-off. The men, who were to be the first members of the 58th expedition to the station, escaped in their capsule and were rescued on the ground 32 hairy minutes later.

Other ISS missions haven’t been so fortunate: on February 1, 2003 the space shuttle Columbia imploded on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts on board.

The Soyuz setback highlights an awkward rostering problem for NASA: since the cessation of the space shuttle program in 2011, the US has relied on ‘buying’ seats on the Soyuz to swap over crews on its half of the ISS.

Who said Uber pioneered ride-sharing? The US recently swallowed its pride and confirmed the acquisition of three extra Soyuz seats in 2019, amid concern that its program to replace the space shuttles was proving too ambitious.

But with a three-person crew due to blast off in a Soyuz in early December, the latest mission to the station has some chance of getting back on track.

The most expensive structure in the world – and, indeed, beyond –  the ISS was built between 1998 and 2011 at a cost of $US150 billion. To date, 15 modules have been assembled (rather like a Lego set) with a further five to be added.

The maximum crew of six performs scientific experiments, eats, sleeps and exercises as the metal orbits the earth 15.5 times a day at a speed of 29,000 kilometres an hour.

Maintaining a semblance of normal life for the crew requires a large amount of provisions – an average of 2722 kilograms per mission. The transit of any goods – anything from toothpaste to heavy scientific equipment – needs to be planned painstakingly months in advance.

When it comes to supplying the ISS using unmanned craft, the procurement controllers have more flexibility because a mini United Nations of spacecraft regularly visit the station (all with different docking procedures).

Despite the perception that the ISS is exclusively a US-Russian concern, the program is actually a venture between five agencies: NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, The European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Thus, the station has been supplied by not only the shuttle and Russian craft such as the Progress and the Soyuz, but by unmanned milk runs from Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (also known as the Kounotori, or White Stork).

Whether the craft are manned or unmanned, the visits are eagerly anticipated by the space station’s cramped occupants. After all, a delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables makes for a welcome respite from the everyday diet of textureless, vacuum-packed mush.

(Sadly for the cosmonauts, vodka deliveries are off limits).

So far, the ISS has been visited by more than 150 craft – an average of slightly more than eight per year – including 50 crewed Soyuz, 70 Russian Progress one-way freight vessels and 37 space shuttles.

A key link in the ISS logistics chain is NASA’s Payload Operations Centre in Huntsville, Alabama. Described as the heartbeat of the ISS research operations, the centre co-ordinates all scientific experiments carried out on the station as well as the “payload activities” of the international partners.

In space, no-one can call roadside assist. As a result, equipment requiring regular replacement – such as the antenna, batteries and pumps – are kept on external pallets called ‘express logistics carriers’ and can be put in place by robotic arms.

Despite the supply mission setbacks, on November 2 this year the ISS celebrated 18 years of continuous habitation, eclipsing the previous record of just under 10 years set by the crew of the Soviet-era Mir station.

But nothing lasts forever, with the future of the ISS under review. While NASA and Roscosmos have pledged to co-operate on a replacement facility, tetchy on-the-ground relations between the two nations means there’s a likelihood they will go their own way.

In the meantime, the US is hardly enamoured with its ‘can I hitch a ride with you, comrade?’ approach and is working on its own crewing and supply options so as to mitigate its reliance on the Russians.

Both Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have separate contracts to develop space ‘taxis’, but their timetable for crewed test flights originally scheduled for August and this month are behind schedule.

Suffice to say, there’s mounting pressure from Capitol Hill on the rival contractors to complete the new era craft sooner rather than later.

After all, in the extraterrestrial trucking game, it always helps to have a Plan B.

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How The Space Elevator Could Open Up Interplanetary Supply Chains

The prohibitive cost of lifting payloads out of the Earth’s atmosphere is hamstringing humanity’s conquest of the solar system. The space elevator may soon make chemical rockets a thing of the past.  

At the Coupa Inspire conference in May this year, keynote speaker Richard Branson announced plans to have Virgin Hotels orbiting the planet within 40 years.

Branson’s famous “anything is possible” attitude was on display, as he breezily talked of shuttle trips between his space hotels and the surface of the moon, and observatory domes where guests can marvel at the Earth from above.

Branson’s audience predominantly consisted of procurement professionals, many of whom were turning their minds to the challenge of maintaining a supply chain in space.

Considering the vast amount of goods and services that flow through any mere terrestrial hotel, the prospect of supplying a space hotel, or any other off-planet settlement, is daunting.

The Payload Challenge

It’s unbelievably expensive to send cargo into space. These days, all eyes are on SpaceX. Elon Musk’s company is leading the way in reducing the cost of payload delivery through lean operations, integrated engine production and reusable spacecraft.

At full capacity, the Falcon 9 rocket can lift cargo to low-earth orbit at US$1233 per pound ($2719 per kg). NASA is paying SpaceX $133 million per mission to resupply the International Space Station. This equates to $27,000 per pound ($59,500 per kg) of cargo delivered.

Reducing the cost of payload delivery is one of the highest priorities for Musk, who has stated that $500 per pound ($1100 per kg) or less is an achievable goal.

Even with payload cost being driven ever-lower, the expense still makes the prospect of a regular delivery service (such as a space hotel supply chain) prohibitively expensive.

Tech Insider recently published a playful article working out the hair-raising costs of some of the unnecessary items NASA has launched into space. They calculated that astronaut Kjell Lindgren’s bagpipes, for example, would have cost anywhere from $54,600 to $259,000 to deliver.

The International Space Station’s espresso machine weighs 44 pounds (20kg), and would have cost between $400,400 and $1.9 million to deliver.

The Space Elevator – A Better Way to Lift Cargo into Space

Arthur C. Clarke predicted that the space elevator would be built “about 10 years after everyone stops laughing”. That’s because at first glance, it seems like pure science-fiction. The thing to understand about how the space elevator would work is that it isn’t a tower or ladder to space, but rather a tether.

Space elevator structural diagram

The Earth-end of the tether would be attached to the surface near the equator, while the other end would be anchored to an object in space (most likely a space-station) beyond geostationary orbit, or 35,800km in altitude. The tether would therefore be held stationary under tension as the space station tried to “pull away” from the planet.

At present, no material exists with the tensile properties required to construct the tether, but teams all over the world are working on the challenge.

Recently, carbon nanotubes, boron nitride nanotubes, and diamond nanothreads have all been considered viable new materials, enabling scientists to inch ever closer to the required tensile strength.

There are many other challenges involved, but commentators agree that once the tether question has been solved, the other components of the elevator will be relatively simple to design and construct.  

A Freight Train to Space

Once constructed, laser or solar-powered ‘climbers’ would ascend and descend the tether, taking materials and passengers to geostationary orbit. Payload prices could be as low as $100 per pound ($220 per kg), with two added advantages.

Firstly, proponents predict a working elevator would be significantly safer than chemical rocket technology. And secondly, the climbers would operate continuously.

Journalists often write about the space elevator in the singular, but there is no reason why the planet would only have one. In fact, it’s likely that multiple competitive nations (and private enterprises) would insist on having their own.

Opening Up Space

With working space elevators, the enormous expenditure of fuel used in boosting chemical step-rockets up through our atmosphere will become a thing of the past.

Spacecraft will no longer be needed for surface-to-space lifts or descents. Instead they will only be needed to move from point to point in space. After an initial boost, a craft in space simply falls freely along its trajectory, with only short-term adjustments and deceleration required.

Space elevators need not be limited to Earth. Within the next century, we may “drop” shorter tethers to the surface of the moon and Mars, with regular cargo and passenger services plying their way between the space stations at the top of the elevators. The complex task of keeping a Moon or Mars colony supplied would become much more feasible.

But that’s thinking a long way ahead. In the medium-term future, Branson’s luxury space hotel may well sit atop a space elevator, supplying its every need.

In the short-term, any day now we may read that scientists have discovered materials strong enough to construct the tether. At which point – as Arthur C. Clarke predicted – everyone will stop laughing.