If you think setting up a world-class supply chain network is challenging, consider the task that faces NASA's logisticians.
Within the next 15 years, the agency hopes to have a permanent space station on the moon. To make that possible, it must develop a channel for delivering food, fuel, oxygen, exploration equipment, and spare parts that's at least as good as the best earthbound networks, if not better. A missed shipment of oxygen generators from Earth to the moon would have far more serious consequences than a missed shipment of machine parts from Long Beach to Albany.
At least NASA will have some help. Two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers, Olivier L. de Weck, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, and David Simchi-Levi, professor of engineering systems and civil and environmental engineering, have begun work on a project to determine what an Earth-to-moon supply chain will have to look like and how it might work.
In January, de Weck and Simchi-Levi released an initial version of SpaceNet, described as a software tool for modeling interplanetary supply chains. The plan they developed is based on a network of distribution centers, or "nodes," that would include satellites in stable orbit around Earth, the moon, or Mars, as well as free-floating platforms that would remain in fixed locations where the gravitational forces between two planets cancel one another out. The DC nodes would serve as both inventoryholding sites and as transfer points between Earth and the lunar station.
Though the interplanetary supply chain will operate on essentially the same principles as its terrestrial counterparts, the MIT researchers acknowledge that NASA logisticians will face a few added challenges. For one thing, transit times (at least in the case of Mars) could stretch to nearly a year. For another, capacity would be limited by the number of space launches. It's safe to say, none of this will make the traditional cost vs. service tradeoffs any easier.
Are we looking at the first example of "universe class" logistics?