A supply chain for the space age

It’s forty-five years since Apollo 11 lifted off, en-route to the moon. We all know about the two men who landed in the Sea of Tranquility a few days later (and some can even name the third, who remained in lunar orbit…) but obviously these few people were just the tip of a very large iceberg. Many thousands of people worked to develop and supply all the components, support systems and consumables that made a trip to the moon possible.

One astronaut, when asked what he thought about in the final moments before a launch, replied that he thought about how every component in his spacecraft was built by the lowest bidder…

That’s a little bit unfair, since (as we all do in procurement decisions) NASA will have disregarded any low bids that they thought were unrealistic, or exposed the project to unacceptable risks. Going to the moon was not in any sense cheap. Only the need to ‘fight’ the Cold War made such a venture possible, so quickly. Virtually everything had to be developed from scratch, and as with most supply networks, everything had to be ready or a mission could not happen. On a technical level, the vast complexity of a Saturn V rocket meant that even if components had 99.9% reliability, a thousand things could be expected to go wrong…

Delays with the first manned Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) meant that it was shipped to the launch site while work was still being performed upon it. Even then, engineering issues meant that it wasn’t ready for the planned launch date. The result was a complete change of mission plans; instead of testing the LEM in low Earth orbit, Apollo 8 flew without a LEM, to orbit the moon instead. In this, NASA showed how innovative and agile they could be, despite the massive complexity of the enterprise. Without that change of plans, the late John F Kennedy’s goal of a moon landing before the end of the 1960s would have been virtually impossible.

It’s a strange sort of supply chain that puts a man (or two) on the moon: money is more-or-less no object (although political arguments about spending on the ‘Moondoggle’ would ultimately lead to the cancellation of Apollo 18, 19 and 20). Attitudes to risk were somewhat different to our present-day mindset as well. Perhaps the NASA staff had been to see the 1951 film ‘When Worlds Collide’, in which humanity can only survive by flying to a new planet. The personnel who labour to construct that spacecraft are guided by the following motivational slogan:

“Waste anything but time: time is our most valuable material.”

When Worlds Collide movie poster

When Worlds Collide

The deaths of three astronauts during a ground-based test in Apollo 1 forced NASA to re-examine its attitude to risk, but little could be done about the level of uncertainty involved in developing all the new things, and new sciences necessary for a return trip to the moon. Above all, the space race was exactly that: a race… but what do you do after you’ve won a race?

You stop running. And that’s more-or-less what happened. Budgets were cut, and the lunar age came to an end. The surplus Saturn V components were used for Skylab missions (early space stations) but the supply chain that had put man on the moon ceased to function.

Modern-day space exploration is somewhat different. It’s not a race, and it’s done on tight budgets. Emerging technology offers intriguing possibilities; while the vast bulk of a chemical rocket is nothing but propellant, ion thrusters (solar powered electric drive systems) offer the possibility of far more efficient missions… but how can you take advantage of these cheaper vehicles, given their low acceleration? Expediting becomes impossible, but ion drives would be great for pre-positioning supplies in orbit, or on other planetary bodies. Apollo 12 demonstrated that it’s possible to locate and land within walking distance of another spacecraft (the 1967 Surveyor 3 probe), so it becomes possible to imagine a new science of slow-but-sure logistics and strategic planning, as an enabler of the next steps in spaceflight.

In this 2006 article on Forbes.com, David Simchi-Levi provides an interesting supply chain view of the future of space exploration, likening the Apollo missions to a ‘push’ supply chain… while missions to resupply the International Space Station are more like a ‘pull’ – as is the hypothetical pre-positioning of supplies for future exploration.


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