Space: The next supply chain frontier

Space Supply Chain

NASA is looking to the logistics industry for proposals to deliver supplies to the moon

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before! …… Captain James T. Kirk

After interviewing Mark Wiese, manager of NASA’s Gateway Logistics Element, the other day, I wanted to revise the last phrase of Captain Kirk’s Star Trek intro to read: “To boldly go where no 3PL has gone before!” Like delivering supplies some 250,000 miles into lunar orbit to support the upcoming Artemis Moon Missions. My guess is that you can’t do that with an Amazon Prime account. 

For that reason, Wiese and NASA are looking for help from the aerospace, logistics and materials handling industries. The reason: Congress has authorized about $7 billion to be spent over 15 years to “set up this deep space supply chain,” as Wiese puts it. To that end, NASA has put out an RFP, looking for innovative ideas on how to transport, store and handle supplies.
Proposals are due in mid-October.

According to Wiese, NASA has already made the first award for the power propulsion element that will launch in 2022. The next step is essentially to create the warehouse in space. “We have a space craft that has explored Mars,” he said. “Now, we need to set up another node for our supply chain.”

The project will support the space station that currently orbits the earth. But more importantly, the goal is to launch something called a HALO, or Habitation And Logistics Outpost, in 2023. HALO will serve as a Gateway, or aggregation point for tools and supplies that will be utilized by the space station and go to the surface of the moon. The Gateway will be located about 250,000 miles away in a lunar orbit. The goal is to have boots on the moon’s surface in 2024.

“The Gateway is not a replacement for the space station, which is like a 6 bedroom house,” Wiese said. “Instead, the Gateway will serve as a docking hub with three ports, including a storage area for logistics supply and a human lander.” Wiese said he imagines the warehouse as something about the size of two city buses – say 1,000 square feet – with very efficient storage. “We can only go to the moon once a year, so we have to be smart about how we pack things, and once there, we have to do as much of the storage and tracking autonomously because a crew won’t always be there,” he said. To that end, he says that packing technologies will be critical, as will be tracking technologies like RFID and robotics to move and find things. Other potential technologies include 3D printing, voice recognition technologies like Alexa, Google and Siri, LED lights and ideas around recycling so that this is sustainable supply chain.

Wiese said NASA realizes that the primaries on this project are going to be the big, well-known aerospace companies. “But, we’re not just focusing on those,” he said. “We need innovation on the cargo module. It’s an area where more traditional supply chain companies can use their R&D to grow their businesses and support our big migration to space.”