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ASCM Insights

Episode 18: The Space-based Supply Chain


Bob Trebilcock: Welcome to the Rebound where we'll explore the issues facing supply chain managers as our industry gets back up and running in a post-COVID world. This podcast is hosted by Abe Eshkenazi, CEO of the Association for Supply Chain Management and Bob Trebilcock, Editorial Director of Supply Chain Management Review. Remember that Abe and Bob welcome your comments. Now, to today's episode. Welcome to today's episode of the Rebound, The Space-based Supply Chain. I'm Bob Trebilcock. 

Abe Eshkenazi: I'm Abe Eshkenazi. 

Bob: Joining us today is Mark Wiese. Mark is Manager of Deep State Logistics for the Gateway Program at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Welcome, Mark. 

Mark Wiese: Thank you, Bob and Abe. I appreciate the invite and glad to be here. 

Bob: We're thrilled to have you. Abe, growing up, I don't know if you were a Star Trek or Star Wars fan. It's a little like that enduring Beatles or Rolling Stones question. Either way, today, we're going to take our listeners to space, the last frontier. Now, if you were a Trekkie, you might remember that the mission was to go where no man, or no person has gone before, or woman for that matter. 

That's the goal of the Artemis mission, or at least one of the goals, which aims to put a woman on the Moon in 2024. It's literally a moonshot. Mark's role in all of this is to go where no supply chain has gone before. Taking storage, transportation, and logistics into deep space to support the mission. The effort could give last mile delivery a whole new meaning. To that end, last spring NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX, to develop a cargo delivery system to get supplies to the Gateway Space Station.

Now, even if you're not a Trekkie, this is pretty exciting stuff. Mark, this is going to be new territory for our listeners. Why don't we start with a little background? Tell us about the Artemis mission, how and when it got started, and how far along it is in its development.

Mark: Sure. Sure. Obviously, most people are aware of Apollo and Shuttle and Space Station. Those were our three huge flagship human exploration missions. At NASA, we're always tasked to think long term. To quote Star Trek for you there, "Things are only impossible until they're not." This latest Artemis push, we've had concepts for human exploration of the Moon and Mars for maybe over a decade. 

As you see around us, our strategic efforts lately have been to enable commercial industry to have a larger part. That's really helped us accelerate our plans and our ability to do things. Commercial crew being last year as a huge push, where we have transitioned from the Space Shuttle, and we're launching humans on our partnerships with commercial industry.

Teams at NASA started the heavy lifting in probably 2018, and formalized the name Artemis to the public in mid-2019. Artemis is our plan, to land the first woman and next man on the surface of the Moon. It's really about going back to the Moon to stay. We're going to use the Moon, our closest celestial neighbor, to practice and perfect the ability to bring human exploration into deep space and ultimately to Mars.

This is a huge undertaking, and we're well on our way. NASA has been working on buying down the risk to extend sustainable human exploration beyond Earth orbit for about 15 years. We're very close to the launch of our Orion spacecraft aboard the Space Launch System, or SLS rocket. That's our largest human transportation system since Apollo. We're working on developing the Gateway, our waypoint around the Moon, the command and control center that we'll have orbiting the Moon, that will serve as our staging point, our loading dock. 

It's going to build off our 20 years of extended human presence that we have right now in low-earth orbit with the International Space Station. We've partnered with industry to infuse development of small landers to the surface of the Moon. We're evaluating design options for commercial human class landing vehicles to the Moon. Finally, we're working to evolve our spacesuits to provide even greater mobility for our astronauts to explore the lunar surface and eventually the Martian surface. 

Abe: Mark, really extraordinary stuff. When we think about logistics and supplying any expedition, whether it's on Earth or truly outside of Earth, the coordination necessary is probably at the top of the chart with all your partners. When you take a look at the partners, in terms of the frequency of the trips that you're planning, and the duration. What concerns you, or what encourages you about putting the puzzle pieces together of the partners, the payloads and the necessary mission control?

Mark: First off, I just have to say, I think I speak for me and all my peers, were just as excited at what has happened in the logistics industry here on Earth. The speed of how I can order something, and it's at my door tomorrow. The complexity and the skills of everybody here on the ground is just as amazing to all of us. For us, with these initial missions, what we're doing is we're working towards an annual human expedition to Gateway, starting in 2024 with crew stays of about up to 30 days for that first mission or two.

Within a few years, we hope to extend those stays to two or three months, 60, 90 days on each annual trip. When we send the crew, our Orion spacecraft, it's kind of the equivalent of a high-performance sports car. It's got enough room for taking care of the crew for 21 days. It can carry two to six people. If we fly four crew, that opens up a couple of hundred kilograms for extra cargo and payloads in that crewed spacecraft, the Orion. 

It's just like a sports car. You might not get many golf clubs in the trunk. It'll take Orion a couple of days to get out to Gateway. Then, once its docked, we can extend that 21-day certification on that spacecraft, because now we're aggregated with this bigger Gateway spacecraft, and that allows us to supplement and preposition supplies. We can extend that mission duration to the 30 days, eventually 60, 90.

To supply that 30-day mission, we'll need about 4,000 kilograms. About 9,000 pounds of supplies. We can break that cargo into roughly three equal groupings. Consumables, outfitting and utilization. If you take that first third for consumables, we plan approximately 10 kilograms per person per crew day. Consumables are things like oxygen to breathe, nitrogen and water. 

It also includes food, hygiene items for the crew, their clothes, just the basics that you would need. If you think of going on a camping trip with your family, that's what you need. It's just, it's in space. There's no general store around the corner. Another third of that cargo is outfitting. Basically, things we'll need to finish building out that campsite, building out Gateway. 

Early on when we're launching permanent modules to that spacecraft, we'll need to use our logistics flights to send up some of the big bulky items that we maybe couldn't launch in place on a permanent module due to the weight or due to the loading it may feel during the launch and flight, and as we upgrade items along the way, we'll use these cargo supplies to change things out and improve upon the systems that we have on Gateway. 

As we move towards reuse of some of those landing vehicles to bring our crew down to the surface, we'll again, bring more equipment to enable the crew on the surface, more tools that they may need. Finally, that last third is for utilization or science. We'll have standard locations on Gateway for our NASA science teams to plan and fly experiments that we can plug in on Gateway, and use that to leverage that unique environment in deep space. 

Put new experiments on board to understand the radiation, understand the thermal environment. Ultimately, to have a robust and thriving commercial industry in deep space. We need to be able to manufacture things out there. We need to really perfect how we do things, how we operate. Science unlocks all those questions about the environment and helps prepare for that vibrant commercial future.

Bob: Mark, NASA awarded its first logistics contract to SpaceX. I remember when you and I talked for the first time when you were putting out the request for proposal, I suggested you just get an Amazon Prime Account and you could get two-day delivery for like 150 bucks a year, but I wondered a couple of things about the contract or the request for proposal. Is there a lot of competition for the contract or are there a limited number of companies that can even do this? Then second, tell us a little bit about the vehicle that's SpaceX is going to use. 

Mark: Like you, I was hoping to see maybe some new players, right. See the likes of UPS, FedEx, DHL enter the race. Obviously what we did is we needed to focus our requirements on demonstrated systems. As NASA has moved into this commercial environment, it's a balance of making sure our request for proposals can focus in on the reality of what we need to get done in the near term while also encouraging that wide, expansive diversification of ideas, so we can continue to bring more companies in with us. 

We received four proposals, and we had strong interests, even more than four at the RP. That's normal companies start to consolidate and partner and figure out how to team. We got four proposals, and we see that as very strong competition. Our requirements were focused on leveraging demonstrated systems in space while also asking those providers to maximize their capabilities against the stated minimums that we provided for how much cargo we needed to bring uphill. Obviously, some of the new terrestrial logistics players haven't demonstrated a launch vehicle or a spacecraft system, but they bring a wealth of knowledge in the supply chain and logistics. We encourage these partnerships going forward. We do typically see industries leveraging each other to find a way to gain a competitive advantage. Ultimately out of those four proposals. Again, our RFP is set up and our contract is set up where we have an on-ramp provision, so we plan to open it up again and bring more companies on board. We want that continual competition over the life of the contract.

We awarded to Space X, so they are our first gateway logistics contractor, but hopefully not the last. We guarantee each winner two missions. We've got a $7 billion contract ceiling across all of the contracts we award in total, and we've got a 15-year performance period of the life of Gateway. Along that period of time, we've got plenty of headroom to bring in other companies and make sure that contract is there to allow us to have that continue environment.

SpaceX proposed the, what they're calling the Dragon XL space vehicle, and it's delivered by their Falcon Heavy rocket, one of their newer variants that built off their Falcon nine. Dragon XL builds upon the success that SpaceX has had with the cargo supplies, the cargo dragon, and their crew dragon that they've been supplying now to the space station with cargo since 2013 and now this past year in 2020 started providing crew flights to space station.

Dragon XL can supply little over 5,000 kilograms or 11,000 pounds of cargo to Gateway in one trip, and you think of it as the size of maybe a standard 40-foot cargo container. That's about a good estimation of the size of what the Dragon XL itself vehicle is. It'll have the ability to autonomously dock and undock, generate its own power, have its own thermal control and serve as a way for us to remove trash as well from the Gateway upon departure. That's our prime spaceship. That's going to be helping serve our logistics supply to Gateway right now, 

Abe: Mark, really interesting in terms of the configuration of what is being brought into space, and you just mentioned the trash or the refuse that's going to be generated at some point. Do you envision, as you're looking out, obviously beyond the current horizon of your current vehicles, what does that mean in terms of reverse logistics and the vehicles necessary to support even longer space duration stays?

Mark: Yes, that's a really great question. We've worked hard to balance that again mentioned earlier, NASA is really good at that long term future planning, but at the same time, we've got to ground ourselves in the reality of what we need immediately and find that balance. As I mentioned earlier, we're thinking the long term. On that contract, we set up two primary delivery lanes. The first being the forward logistics that we talked about, that standard cargo delivery service with a module like Dragon XL, and then the second lane, which we call specialized missions is intentionally designed to give us the flexibility as new commercial capabilities comes to the market. 

Obviously today, there's an evolving capability to bring astronauts and cargo up and down to the space station. That represents the demonstration of the capabilities we can leverage in a specialized mission when NASA decides that we need that mission. We envision the ability to, in the future, be able to return cargo. It may start out small, maybe just like capsule that allows a sample to come back. However, we hope to evolve that to larger and larger capabilities as industry moves with us.

NASA also has another contract mechanism that we compliment. It's called CLPS or Commercial Lunar Payload Services. CLPS is a product of the science side of NASA, not the human exploration side, and it's helping to incubate new Lander technologies where we can tolerate a much higher level of risk. CLPS has a lower bar to entry for commercial industry. It provides an easier avenue to demonstrate capabilities in less risky areas. As new commercial industry partners demonstrate technologies via CLPS, that will start to open the door for them to potentially compete for a spot on our gateway logistics services contract. 

NASA is also working to infuse the developmental of those human class landers, obviously, in a much less risk-tolerant way where failure is not an option. Ultimately we need to get to this point of in situ resource utilization. That's the next goal post, where we dramatically lower the costs of new space exploration. When we can find ways to live off the land, have autonomous manufacturing produce off the moon or off an asteroid, and we'll have jumpstart at both a new economy and create maybe a fuel Depot, a new logistics node in deep space. That help us serve as that waypoint to extend beyond and go on tomorrow. We're really hoping to evolve this logistics platform to go all different directions. 

Bob: Mark, you've referenced that when you put out the RFP, you were hoping that some of the traditional logistics companies might be competing for that. As I understand it, you're starting to see traditional logistics companies attending your conferences. Since Abe and I worked with those traditional logistics companies as part of our jobs, one, what do you think is their interest? As you think about how this might evolve, what might be the role for those companies in the future, or where might they play, particularly if they haven't developed their own rocket or their own space vehicle? 

Mark: Yes. It's interesting DHL, I mentioned on the CLPS contract, DHL has already partnered with one of the providers on that CLPS contract, where they're delivering scientific instruments to the surface. I personally think it would be a huge success if we start to see the merger of terrestrial logistics expertise, working hand in hand with aerospace expertise, and we've been trying to attend the terrestrial side conferences as well, so we can help drive that cross-pollination. 

Ultimately in this aerospace industry, we have to do a better job at helping everyone here on earth understand the benefit of what we do and why we explore. I think as we see the population of earth continue to grow, as we understand the implications of how our planet has evolved and how to better take care of it, I think more and more people will appreciate the science, technology and research that drives why we explore. The best use of our taxpayer dollars are to buy down the risks that commercial companies can't bear alone. 

We have this unique ability to unite industries across domains for a greater purpose. Aerospace technologies themselves are already starting to make their way into our doorstep. The easiest, most simplest one for everyone to grasp is probably global positioning, so GPS satellites, and today that allows suppliers to better understand the movement of cargo across the globe. It helps consumers know where and when a package will arrive on our doorstep, and today drones are starting to enter service and helping transport that last mile.

Automation and robotics are continuously speeding up the supply chain, which allows us to enable greater demand. As we pursue sustainability out of the moon and a deep space, that'll allow us all to reap the rewards of wasting less and helping protect this planet. We need all these things. We need automation. We need to be able to do things out there without humans sometimes.

Reuse of rocket stages within the past decade, that was something that was unimaginable 10, 12 years ago. It's totally changed the launch industry. Today, the department of defense, the US transportation command is responsible for moving logistics of the military services across the globe. They're doing a study on how reusable rockets may someday supplement the work that's done by large cargo aircraft today. 

Imagine being able to move 100 metric tons of cargo across the globe in a matter of minutes, not hours. Over 100 years ago, the spark lit by the Wright brothers was already well on its way to shrink our planet and just look what we do with aircraft today, that first step on the moon in 1969 ignited this again. We're entering an era of rapid evolution in our transportation industry with the work we're doing at NASA. I think the future of us all merging together is getting closer and closer. 

Abe: Mark, really fascinating. Let me dig into a last question. As you're looking forward, let me press that gas fall a little bit more stress your vision of the future. We're looking at an unbelievably large footprint in terms of space and trying to get individuals’ arms wrapped around why you go to space and justification, and the greater purpose really resonates with a lot of the things that we talk about supply chain and people's understanding of how supply chain enables us as an economy and our health and our science and all aspects of it. It sounds like you're doing the same thing with the space missions here. Relative to commercial utilization in terms of your space program, where do you see this going 10, 15, 20 years from now? How far can we get in terms of space as a reasonable approach for the masses? 

Mark: I think it's a really exciting time because of that infusion of what we do and the general public starting to feel connected to it. My whole career, it was I've heard, yes Mars is probably 2030s, 2040s, and it felt like the goalpost was always moving and I really feel like now we're starting to take the steps that will enable that. 10 years from now, I'm confident we'll have demonstrated the ability to deliver cargo to the surface of the moon and we'll have the ability to return cargo from the surface of the moon. 

We'll be finding ways to make it cheaper and easier and easier, and we'll start to see that accelerate. It'll be a matter of what we bring back, not how much or how often. I suspect my project will be in the planning phases for the best ways to leverage multiple supply missions to and from a crew that's en route, so the first mission to Mars. I think in 10 years, we'll be ready to start planning that and how do we do that? Even better than all that, I suspect NASA will have continued the legacy of being a driving force for global unity, helping us all work together by embracing the diversity amongst us all. I mean that's what drives innovation, that's what inspires that next generation to reach the stars. 

Abe: Now obviously we're all benefiting from a lot of the science and a lot of the innovation. That is all the time that we have today we can continue this conversation on forever. It's such a fascinating topic. A special thanks to our guest, Mark Wiese and thank you for joining us today to our listeners. We hope you'll be back for our next episode, and for the Rebound I am Abe Eshkenazi. 

Bob: I'm Bob Trebilcock, thank you. The Rebound is a joint production of the Association for Supply Chain Management and Supply Chain Management Review. For more information, be sure to visit and We hope you'll join us again. 


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