With the growing demand for human space flight, understanding the process of Supply Chain Management (SCM) beyond Earth is critical to interplanetary missions. In simple terms, SCM is the handling of the entire production flow of a good or service to maximize quality, delivery, customer experience and profitability.
Unlike the typical supply chain in manufacturing facilities or distribution centers, interplanetary logistics will need to make trade-offs between demands for supplies and shipping capacities. To evaluate the capabilities of SCM in space, NASA awarded MIT to develop a model for interplanetary supply chain for sustainable space exploration, known as Interplanetary Supply Chain Management and Logistics Architecture (IPSCM&LA) in 2005.
Researchers used the Canadian Arctic as a high-risk, remote environment to simulate and collect data. Then they developed a probabilistic supply and demand models by identifying the classes of supply to predict small quantity logistics under uncertainty and robust sparing strategies. Lastly they Carried out trade studies to highlight the implications of major architectural options of the interplanetary supply chain in terms of intermediate buffers, redundant transportation modes and push-pull boundaries.
The product of this research was SpaceNet, a demand driven discrete event simulation and optimization software for space logistics. SpaceNet evaluated the capability of vehicles to carry pressurized and unpressurized cargo as it simulated the flow of vehicles, crew, and supply items through space supply network. It took into account how much fuel and time are needed for single sortie missions as well as multi-year campaigns for prepositioning. Also, SpaceNet allowed systems engineers and logisticians to focus on what will be needed to support crewed exploration missions. MIT and NASA used SpaceNet for Apollo 17, LEO refueling in Constellation, ISRU on lunar surface, and ISS assembly and re-supply.
The research by Professors David Simchi-Levi and Olivier de Weck concluded the lessons learned, which include requiring a common logistics/inventory system across multiple organizations, incorporating stowage requirements in vehicle design specifications, designing for maintenance to reduce the logistics footprint, and including return logistics in the design/specification.
NASA has integrated all the lessons learned and implemented in the Artemis Program, which aims to land astronauts on the Moon and function as a gateway to Mars. The Lunar Gateway will be an outpost orbiting the Moon that provides vital support for a sustainable, long-term human return to the lunar surface, as well as a staging point for deep space exploration. The Gateway is a destination for astronaut expeditions and science investigations, as well as a port for deep space transportation such as landers en route to the lunar surface or spacecraft embarking to destinations beyond the Moon. In 2021, NASA awarded SpaceX for its Falcon Heavy to be used for propelling the Lunar Gateway.
The goal is to launch cargo module departing about a week ahead of the crew, with the module to stay in space for 30 to 60 days, potentially extending that to 3 or 6 months over time. SpaceX will use its Dragon XL capsule to carry about 3.5 metric tons inside the container with another metric ton or so stored outside. It will will dock with the Gateway in lunar orbit and then burn up on the return trip, as it does not have the heat shield technology for a return trip.
Sustainable space exploration is impossible without appropriate supply chain management and there will be a strong demand for interplanetary logistics as it is an emerging niche with enormous potential in the new frontier.