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NASA is Developing a Supply Chain to the Moon … and Beyond

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NASA is building on supply chain lessons learned through the International Space Station program. Here, an ISS rocket cone is fitted with cargo for astronauts.

“Last-mile” delivery is a thorny problem for any shipper. Moving goods to their final destinations presents the continuous challenge of reducing time, costs and inefficiencies. The cost of a failure: an irate customer.

But what if your “last mile” is actually 238,900 miles? And what if failure, as they say in the movies, is not an option?

That’s the challenge facing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Mark Wiese, logistics element manager for the administration’s Gateway Program.

Gateway is a small spacecraft that NASA plans to put in moon orbit by 2024. The ship will serve as a temporary home for astronauts who NASA plans to return to the moon as part of its Artemis project. Eventually, Gateway will serve as a waypost for much longer trips to Mars — that’s a “last mile” of approximately 140 million miles, in case you’re wondering.

Unlike the last time earthlings visited the moon via the Apollo missions, NASA today collaborates closely with private sector partners. We talked to Wiese about the logistics of working with the private sector, how NASA will keep astronauts supplied and about NASA’s supply chain best practices.

Doing ‘Whatever it Takes’

Supply Chain Best Practices: Tell us about NASA’s work with the private sector. Has there been any sort of a learning curve?

Mark Wiese: The aerospace industry is excited about the opportunity to move its business models to support NASA while growing a new customer base from private interests. However, this represents a culture change for both us at NASA and them.

The learning curve started in the late 1990s as we drove the commercialization of the U.S. [rocket] launch industry. That expanded in the mid-2000s, with NASA investing in the U.S. commercial spacecraft industry to supply the International Space Station (ISS). In the 2010s, we worked hard to mature [the logistics of] commercial crew transportation to the ISS. All of this U.S. investment in the commercial space transportation industry has helped drive new business models using data from space.

SCBP: NASA issued a $7 billion call for proposals to provide cargo transportation services to Gateway. How does this fit within the Artemis project?

MW: With our Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) request for proposal, we’ve set the table for moving this learning curve out another order of magnitude, opening up access to the moon [and] paving the way for us to reach further into deep space with a commercial supply chain. This will enable us to pave the pathway to supply our crews for longer journeys, and will open the door for the private sector to capitalize on resources that exist off this planet.

SCBP: Why did NASA select the Kennedy Space Center to handle the logistics of Artemis?

MW: We’ve historically seen ourselves as an “operations” center of excellence. During Apollo, the shuttle and ISS, we gained the reputation of being the team that does whatever it takes to complete the final work and get NASA’s research, development and astronauts into space. In the late ’90s, with the launch of the commercial rocket industry, we took that lead in molding a new business model for NASA’s science and exploration missions.

Following shuttle, we took the lead with shaping the commercial crew business model. Over the last decade, we’ve worked hard at diversification of our industry base and evolved to a multi-user spaceport.

We take a lot of pride in knowing how to balance our governmental requirements while enabling everyone to be successful, whether that is our government, international or commercial partners. The logistics of Artemis is a great fit for us to take the lead in expanding upon the commercialization we’ve influenced over the past 20-plus years.

NASA supply chain illustrated on Gateway spaceship

SCBP: What has NASA learned from working so closely with the private sector?

MW: NASA has learned how to streamline and innovate in order to find efficiencies. Private industry has to evolve continually so the business model remains relevant and competitive.

What we do is risky, and we’re charged with assuring the U.S. tax dollars are invested so that together we can provide a return on investment for the American public. We provide industry with the check and balance to make sure we don’t take too much risk, we protect our crews, and we protect the investment that the American public puts into us. We also help drive the business model disruptions that might be too risky for them to take alone with our leading-edge science and research.

Together, that is a great complement. We drive the U.S. economy to expand, we provide the spark for the U.S. to stay at the leading edge of technology, and we drive improvements in how we all live and work every day. This collaboration benefits everyone, and together we represent a priceless investment that pays tremendous dividends back here on planet Earth.

SCBP: What types of industries are you looking to engage with?

MW: We want to engage with industries that can enable efficiencies in the packing, shipping, loading/unloading and specifically where the NASA investment can help buy down early development risks for disruptive solutions here on Earth. [This includes] robotics, automation, identification and tracking of cargo, recycling and reuse of packing materials, and standardization of shipping sizes.

SCBP: Do you look for private industry partners to provide you with technologies on a one-time or continuing basis?

MW: We are looking for long-term relationships where we can leverage NASA’s investment for the advancement of our mission, and the future of how we enable the movement of cargo here across the air, sea and ground. NASA’s push to do something challenging will help pull new ways of doing things here on Earth.

We want the commercial logistics industry to establish long-term relationships with our aerospace industry so that we can intentionally drive collaboration on a continuing basis. There will be a day when we have new options for transporting cargo across Earth over long distances, measured in minutes instead of hours. We want to enable that future through these partnerships.

Building a Supply Chain in Space

SCBP: What role is Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) playing in this? Is it a partner program to supplying the Gateway?

MW: CLPS is a big part of Artemis. When we explored with the Apollo program, there were dozens of early uncrewed precursor missions to explore and provide the data to better inform our human exploration plans. CLPS is an area where we can accept a lot of risk, and that contract is designed for us to do just that.

CLPS is structured for us to enable advances in the delivery options for our science instruments, focused on that precursor exploration phase, and it is managed out of our Science Mission Directorate. It is one of the tools in our suite of methods to quickly and frequently move technology to the moon to inform and study.

Our GLS contract complements CLPS; however, it is designed with a different risk posture in mind. GLS provides the cargo that will interface with the Gateway and our crew. GLS provides the cargo and science items necessary for human exploration. We have designed GLS to provide maximum flexibility to the agency’s exploration goals, with a balanced level of government oversight and approval, focused on enabling human exploration of the surface of the moon and Mars.

SCBP: How often will Gateway be resupplied? How will this look different from how the International Space Station is supplied?

MW: We are targeting an annual crewed mission to Gateway, and we expect a single logistics mission to accompany each crewed mission. Gateway differs from the ISS since we will not have a permanent human presence on Gateway. The ISS has housed a permanent crew for almost 20 years, requiring frequent resupply, [with] four to five missions a year.
SCBP: How are the logistics of delivering to space different from what we’re used to on Earth?

MW: I don’t think it is much different; the challenge comes in the planning. Here on Earth, if you are going on vacation or planning to do an extended hiking or camping trip, you need to plan what is absolutely necessary for that trip, especially if the area you are going to won’t have a big-box store you can easily get to!

ISS requires us to plan ahead, and constantly track the consumables for our crew, and the next opportunities for delivery when we have operations planned in the future. Sometimes we pre-position something the crew will need, well in advance, just because our options to get it up there are limited.

Here on Earth we probably take for granted how quickly we can order and get something. Advances in commercial aviation and transport capabilities on Earth have improved our quality of life by decreasing the time for shipments. Our goal will be to make the next leap in that technology here on Earth, by exploring the moon and Mars.

SCBP: What will a true commercial supply chain in space look like?

MW: A true commercial supply chain is self-sustaining. Ideally, a diversified customer base drives demand, which in turns enables a competitive environment for providing the supply. The implication for the private sector is that we’ve tapped a new economy, a new well full of opportunities that will enable new innovations for the public. This allows capitalism to fuel the engine of innovation and collaboration.

The public benefits are immeasurable: It’s like raising children and then seeing the reward of them going off on their own, reaching new heights, and evolving and improving upon the base you provided. NASA is funded by the American public, [and] it is our job to assure we create a wake that amplifies the investment the public entrusts in us.

‘Powered by Passion’

SCBP: NASA thinks big. How do you translate your “big audacious goals” into executable steps?

MW: This is a part of our culture at NASA. We attract individuals who are powered by a passion to change hearts and minds, to make possible what was previously thought impossible. We spend a lot of time translating strategic goals into actionable and achievable steps, making incremental progress.

Government organizations, by design, focus on the longer-term impact; however, it is imperative that we break that down into steps that we can achieve on an annual basis. Private organizations are typically driven by their stockholders, investors who have a short-term view focused on quarterly gains, driving a focus on weekly or monthly achievements. Our culture is driven by big audacious goals — this is what we do.

NASA supply chain illustrated via satellites

SCBP: What are some of NASA’s supply chain best practices?

MW: Historically, NASA has driven new technologies where a self-sustainable supply chain was not achievable. We typically had to make sure we invested enough to buy down the research and development investment, as well as purchasing stability for the initial delivery order and backups. This approach is costly, given NASA serves as the primary and only customer of the product we need.  

SCBP: Quality, safety and on-time delivery are important in any sector. But I imagine they are especially vital to NASA?

MW: You are absolutely correct; we call this function “mission assurance.” Our mission assurance approach at NASA is to assure the safety of everyone involved while maximizing the success of our missions. We target the government oversight of our commercial providers, striking the appropriate balance of contracting for “what” we need, without dictating “how” to do it. The NASA role is then to assess progress via risk informed project management practices.

A robust commercial supply chain, with viable competition across multiple diversified approaches, provides the ultimate mission assurance for NASA.    

SCBP: What is NASA’s biggest supply chain challenge?

MW: I see the biggest challenge as making sure we connect our mission with the broadest audience. We need to spark the interest in established industries, outside the typical aerospace world, to make sure we aren’t developing technologies to solely operate in a vacuum — pun intended, since most of our hardware must operate in the vacuum of space!

At NASA, within the aerospace industry, we are really good at finding creative and innovative solutions to complex technical challenges. I don’t want the on-earth industry base to miss the collaborative opportunities for us to find synergies. The diversified perspectives found via collaboration will drive us both to solve our individual challenges, while helping make the business cases for emerging markets.

SCBP: You’ve worked in both the public and private sectors. How do they differ or how are they similar in their supply chain management practices?

MW: The bottom line is that both public and private sector supply chains share the same function to meet organizational objectives, but the differences may exist in the processes and priorities. I learned this at the start of my career at [IT and engineering contractor] SAIC with their geographic information systems product that supported both our warfighters and [helped] local municipalities plan and develop their cities. The exposure highlighted the concept of diversifying a business model and spreading innovation investments across multiple customer bases that are key to growth and expansion to maximize profits.

The public sector in contrast often measures ROI by the magnitude of public good served. So while the private sector will choose the lowest-cost supply chain option, the public entity may be required to factor in other variables such as small business vendor goals. A second supply chain difference is that many times there may only be a handful of vendors capable of providing the highly specialized supply chain solution required for NASA’s requirements, a rarity for businesses.

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