We often hear about NASA’s spacecraft launches into space or more recently, billionaire Elon Musk’s space tourism business ambitions. Behind those ambitions is an extremely complex process with a system that includes hundreds or even thousands of different suppliers. Therefore, effective supply chain management is a decisive factor in the success of these billion-dollar projects.
- Outer space projects face many challenges such as the long distance, severe environment with high level of radiation or difficulties in communication.
- To ensure survival for spacecraft, technicians used special materials to produce them.
- NASA and its partners have over 3,800 suppliers to help build their rockets, and it typically costs them $10,000 to put just one pound of payload into Earth’s orbit.
- For a design to go into manufacture, it has to go through a strict quality control process, which can take 2 years.
- After launch, regular communication between the crew and the ground is essential.
1. Challenges of space operations
The universe has long been a mysterious subject to mankind. We are constantly working on space projects in the sake of gaining more understanding of how the universe works. Compared to other jobs, these projects are more challenging, because the spacecraft have to operate in outer space, where the environment is very severe. Thus, all things have to be adaptive.
Some difficulties can be mentioned such as: The very long distance from the Earth requires a minimum speed of 40,000 km/h to overcome the gravity of the Earth or the ability to maintain in harsh environments with the extremely high level of radiation. In addition, the transmission of information and communication also poses many difficulties.
On July 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit. That event marked a milestone in mankind’s journey to conquer outer space. Since then, many of the space projects have been successfully implemented. One of the factors contributing to these achievements is good preparation and the key is effective supply chain management.
2. What materials are used for spaceships to “survive”?
Aluminium, the aircraft metal, migrated from aviation to rocket construction. Although it is light and ductile, it is not firm enough. Therefore, technicians alternate it by alloys of aluminum with some other metals such as copper, manganese, magnesium, lithium, etc,. are used for ensuring durability and sturdiness.
Nowadays, metals and alloys (in particular, steel) are replaced by glass and carbon fibre to manufacture spacecraft. Another innovation is the use of big 3D printers, which can create single-piece, complex-shape elements for spaceships which are impossible for some light metals.
3. The complexity of suppliers system
An Airbus aircraft comprises over 4 million parts sourced from 30 different countries. A Boeing 373 is made up of over 367,000 parts and hundreds of domestic and foreign suppliers. To produce an airliner requires millions of parts and hundreds of hardware suppliers, but for a space project, it is much more complicated.
A NASA space shuttle consisted of over 2.5 million moving parts weighing nearly 4.5 million pounds, and costing around 1.7 billion dollars. NASA and its partners coordinated over 3,800 suppliers, and it typically cost them $10,000 to put just one pound of payload into Earth’s orbit.
Most aerospace projects involve both government and private sectors. And now, private trading companies have become more deeply integrated in the supply chain of materials or even carry out their own projects.
Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Vir-gin Galactic, Sierra Nevada, and Rocket Lab now develop different spacecraft. Made In Space, Planetary Resources, and Deep Space Industries now develop manufacturing and resource capabilities for space. NanoRacks and Astrobotic are positioned as logistics facilitators for payloads and launches.
4. Manufacturing operations
Usually, a spacecraft has an average height of 56 m and weighs about 2000 tons. As a result, they are manufactured in giant factories. For example, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, one of the largest buildings in the world with 2,664,883 m3 wide. The highest place is equivalent to 52 floors, and it takes up to 45 minutes to fully open the doors.
However, one problem for SpaceX and other private companies isto lack of suppliers. So some of them including SpaceX decided to make it on their own. More than 70% of the components are already manufactured by SpaceX, which also allows them to effectively minimize costs and lead time.
SpaceX’s cost per orbit to $1,000 per pound, equal only 10% of NASA and even lower than China’s famously low-cost Long March rocket.
5. Deliberate quality control process
After a mission is adopt moves into the implementation phase, during which detailed designs are prepared and engineering and qualification models are built and tested before manufacturing the final flight model and its spares.
To test the feasibility, first, the electrical systems are checked to ensure the communication system between astronauts and people on the Earth. The final test is on software, ensuring that it can process information correctly. Navigation and pointing are also tested.
Qualification and acceptance phases can take more than two years. Following the successful conclusion of the Flight Acceptance Review, the spacecraft is ready to be transported to the launch site.
6. Is everything done after the spaceship launched?
After launch, regular communication between the crew and the ground is essential. That is far more difficult, as Earth is surrounded by an atmosphere which weakens the signals that can only be received by huge parabolic antennas.
In addition, the provision of essentials for the crew such as food, water and utensils, tools and refueling for spacecraft are also important. On June 30, 2018, Russia successfully launched the Progress MS-17 spacecraft carrying more than 470 kg of fuel, 420 liters of water and many other supplies to the International Space Station.
Some countries have actively been researching solutions to refuel spaceships in the most efficient way, such as building refueling stations in space, using the Moon as a refueling station and producing fuel directly on Mars.
7. Some current trends
To reduce dependence on fuel resources on Earth, direct mining at planets is a unique and feasible idea. We are working on techniques for extracting fuel in asteroids and other celestial bodies including: metals (for construction and technological products), water (for rocket fuel) and rare Earth elements such as Helium-3.
Besides, sustainable operation is also a matter of focus. Some spacecraft after a certain time will expire and become space debris. In 2016, experts from the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) concluded that, if this problem was not solved, space exploration might stop altogether. This is because all objects in near-Earth orbit will be trapped by the space debris.
Space debris can be dangerous for operating spacecraft or fall to Earth causing injuries to people. In the 2013 film Gravity, the broken spaceship created thousands of debris fragments and destroyed a space shuttle, the Hubble telescope, and part of the International Space Station. This chain reaction is known as the Kessler effect.
A number of measures have been introduced by countries such as a satellite capable of self-destructing at the end of its life (Russia), the Aolong-1 satellite that can collect fragments with a robotic arm (China), or the Astroscale satellite capable of detecting and using magnets to collect space debris (Singapore).
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