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November 23, 2015
Supply Chain Challenges in Space Exploration
By: Haresh Gopalan, Nipun Mundoor & Dinesh Natarajan

The idea to write about supply chain for space exploration came about while watching the recent release of the movie The Martian. The premise of the movie is quite simple – an astronaut, Mark Watney, is stranded on Mars and the entire human race comes together, while pouring billions of dollars into the resources, in an effort to bring him back home.

In short, this involves mobilizing the largest supply chain known to mankind. The global space economy is worth $300 Billion and employs more than 100 thousand people. With the advent of private players such as SpaceX and the entry of countries such as India and China rapidly expanding their exploration capabilities, the possibility of colonization of the Moon and Mars by 2040 is an imminent reality. Sustainable space exploration will require a proactive and highly responsive supply chain.


Space supply chains are low demand and highly schedule driven. This might seem to be in contrast to commercial supply chains, which deal with high volume and compressed lead times. But applying the principles governing the commercial fast paced supply chains to the space supply chain can make it more agile and cost efficient. The current system is highly proactive in the sense that cutting edge research finds its way into the space missions on a regular basis but the system isn’t responsive enough to tackle emergencies.

One of the biggest challenges for any space agency is the long lead times for acquiring materials to build new space shuttles as well as for maintenance of existing ones. The reason for this is twofold. Owing to the long turnaround times between missions, most of the parts in a space supply chain are made to order and in some special cases, engineered to order. Secondly, the intricate design of many parts in a space shuttle requires special manufacturing capabilities which are available only in a few parts of the world.

Space travel, at present, is limited to scientific expeditions but in the future, there will definitely be an interplanetary transportation system similar to today’s air transport system. Reduction of cost on earth (moving parts and building massive transportation systems) as well as in space (rocket fuel and other energy source requirements to move the shuttle in space) are the next set of challenges every space agency is now facing.

To achieve interplanetary travel on a mass scale requires that cost be brought down. Scientists are working on ways to reduce fuel usage and researching new techniques to reduce energy requirements for large velocity changes necessary to move from one body to another in the Solar System. Such a massive endeavor requires not only physics but also an efficient supply chain; the ability to bring together people, money and resources for building and maintaining space transportation infrastructure.

One of the ways the above challenges can be handled is by creating spacecraft designs, in which the majority of the non-reusable parts are noncomplex. This way we can perform a segmentation of parts based on complexity and functionality. Noncomplex, single function parts prone to high wear and tear can be made to stock.

Another way is to nurture local suppliers by funding research on production techniques of complex parts at low cost and high efficiency. This process has already been started in India and the Indian Space Research Organization is doing this fairly successfully. More than 75% of the parts of the recently launched the Mars Orbiter Mission, also called Mangalyaan, were locally sourced.

The system can also be made more efficient by creating modules for shuttles. Modular design is a design approach that subdivides a system into smaller parts called modules that can be independently created and then used in different systems. This takes care of reusability of the modules as well as the reduction in cost when replacing an already existing system due to repair or maintenance.

Another idea that is being actively discussed is the possibility of creating a base on the Moon which will serve as a launch site for inter-planetary missions. This is not too dissimilar to the hub and spoke model that we see in traditional supply chains. Apart from the obvious benefit of delivering payloads faster, the other reason for considering a depot on the Moon is due to its low surface gravity, which can significantly reduce launch costs.

Today, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit. Any reduction in launch weight could lead to tremendous savings. A recent study by MIT suggests that having moon as a refueling pit-stop en route to Mars could reduce the fuel mass requirement by 70%. The major constituents of rocket fuel is Hydrogen and Oxygen, both of which can be extracted from the ice deposits present in abundance on the lunar poles. If a mission can refuel at the Moon for its long trip to Mars, then the space shuttles can be made lighter and the total fuel requirement to reach Mars will be lesser even though the number of stops is more. Within a few decades we will be seeing a network of such bases in low-Earth orbits and the Moon, thereby cutting down lead times and facilitating more frequent rocket launches.

Optimizing a complex supply chain consisting of a huge network of nodes with a geographical spread over a few hundred miles is in itself a daunting task, extending this network on an inter-planetary scale takes the challenge to a whole another level.

In an effort to address this exact issue, MIT Space Logistics team and JPL created SpaceNet, a software for modeling inter-planetary supply chains. The software enables mission planners to evaluate different trade-offs between competing demands for different types of supplies and allows logisticians to focus on what will needed to support crewed exploration missions.


The integration of the aforementioned ideas in the current space supply chain will ensure that rescuing a Martian will be much easier than what we saw in the movie. In Mark Watney’s words: Godspeed, little taters. My life depends on you.


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