Talk about understatement. Here's the first sentence of a paper written by four MIT scientists: "One of the major difficulties in mission planning for interplanetary human space exploration is logistics management."
I would suspect so.
We write regularly here about the complexities of logistics as business becomes more global in scope, of the difficulties of coordinating a shipment from the overseas factory to the seaport to North American shores and on to the final customer. If you miss a vessel sailing in Hong Kong, that's a supply chain disruption no one wants, but miss a launch headed for the moon or beyond, and, well, I'd guess that there won't be a lot of safety stocks to call on out there. The authors of the paper—graduate research assistants Sarah A. Shull and Erica L. Gralla, research scientist Matthew Silver, and Assistant Professor Olivier de Weck—acknowledge that even supplying the (relatively) nearby International Space Station that's orbiting the earth has presented forecasting, tracking, and shipping challenges. (For more, see the item in Inbound on page 1.)
Oddly, even though what we're talking about here is rocket science, the space station apparently has a major inventory management problem, with 3 percent of items in the system considered lost. The technology that the authors recommend to improve accuracy will ring a bell for DC managers. They suggest that the bar-code system currently in use is not adequate for the task, but that radio-frequency identification might be the answer. Yes, RFID, the same technology that's sparked so much discussion among retailers and consumer goods manufacturers may also have a role in the timely and accurate delivery of goods to future residents of a station on the moon.
The paper, published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, also discusses a software tool called SpaceNet, which the authors describe as a space exploration logistics model. That is, it models supply chains.
In a sense, the logistics challenges of moving shipments to the moon or Mars are very much like the logistics and distribution problems managers face every day in more earthbound DCs. It is a matter of knowing what needs to move when, and then delivering it reliably.
Consider space exploration and you may not think about forecasting, planning, making goods, and moving them to the right place at the right time at the best possible cost. But it turns out, supply chain planning and execution matter as much in a trip to the stars as they do to moving goods to the shelves.