(Updated 1:45 P.M. ET, with Q &A)
Same-day delivery may be the last great frontier on Earth, but now logistics innovators have another star to shoot for: deep space supply chains.
NASA is gearing up to establish the first permanent colony on the moon as a transshipment point for even further missions to Mars, and it needs a reliable delivery system to shuttle supplies back and forth.
On Thursday, Mark Wiese, manager of deep space logistics for NASA’s Gateway program, solicited logistics and freight technology companies to collaborate in the development of a next-generation supply chain that can overcome the challenges of distance, zero gravity, isolation and extreme conditions.
“We want to partner with you in developing existing capabilities on Earth and translating them to the logistics supply chain beyond our atmosphere,” Wiese said in a keynote address to SpaceWaves, a first-of-its-kind conference from FreightWaves that explores opportunities in the space logistics market. “NASA can’t do it alone. There are opportunities for investment, innovation and growth far beyond the boundaries of this pale blue dot we call home.”
NASA is changing its model, moving from buying a service to incubating commercial opportunities in space and even acting as a source of venture capital, Wiese added in a follow-up question-and-answer session. “NASA is the R&D leg for the federal government and we go do things that don’t make businesses cases and try and prime the pump there, but were getting to this place in space now where it’s opening up to markets all over. So it’s time to start moving towards the commercial sector, where they can see a place where businesses can close. And we want to inspire that in non-traditional industries.”
And new advances eventually could be applied to enhance freight transportation on Earth, Wiese said, speculating on the possibility of electric trucks that can recharge on the fly or cargo that can deliver itself.
Any new logistics system will rest on the new Space Launch System, a powerful rocket designed to get larger, heavier payloads beyond Earth’s gravity. NASA plans for reusable lunar landers to move people and cargo to and from a moon-orbiting platform known as the Gateway, which will also serve as the way station for human capsules headed into deep space. And the logistic system will have to be able to handle large, densely packed heterogenous cargo, according to NASA.
NASA’s Gateway logistics element team leads commercial acquisition, contract management and risk mitigation to deliver cargo, supplies and pieces of the Gateway architecture to space.
Automation and new types of packaging are key areas of interest for NASA, but any logistics system will have to be durable and adaptive enough to withstand being bombarded by radiation, which induces rapid changes in temperature that impact vulnerable payloads, and avoid fast-moving debris.
Automation is critical because the distance makes real-time communication and remote control of vehicles unworkable. The lag time for signals to reach the moon is 2.5 seconds, and it’s 40 minutes to Mars, Wiese told the virtual audience.
“That means we’ll need autonomous systems capable of making decisions for themselves. And batteries that last longer, charge faster and weigh less,” he said, “with interactivity between robots that has never before been accomplished in space.”
In space, the key performance indicators look much different than how many SKUs are in inventory.
“How do you quantify and ensure delivery success for products to the moon? How do you handle logistics to the launch pad on a large scale? How do you manage deliveries on the lunar surface or between modules in orbit,” Wiese asked. “In many cases, there won’t be people there to handle these products, check inventories or fix problems.
“How do you define interoperability standards between your cargo and NASA, or other commercial or international partners? How do you define roles and responsibilities across vast dimensions of time and space?”
And just-in-time delivery won’t be an option when the next delivery window to Mars is two years away and the trip takes more than six months.
Wiese said NASA is looking for packaging that not only protects the contents from strong G-forces, protects against radiation that can damage electronics and temperature changes that can spoil food, but is lightweight, affordable, reusable or recyclable.
“We need to build the infrastructure, the partnerships, the relationships with businesses and people necessary to continually move supplies from the Earth to the moon,” Wiese said.