The replicator that can produce food, clothes, and other necessities on demand is familiar to all devotees of Star Trek. That device was actually essential for the Enterprise's extended mission, to keep the ship properly equipped without having to pack along whatever the crew might need at some point light years away from a home planet. Though such replicators are still in the realm of science fiction, we are getting closer to the point of extended space trips.
Going back to the moon and maybe even Mars
NASA just finalized a $2.8 billion contract with Boeing Co. to produce the Space Launch System (SLS). SLS is a rocket powerful enough to carry astronauts where no human has gone before. That includes exploration of asteroids, the moon, and, ultimately, Mars. The first test flight is planned for 2017, and the first manned flight for 2021.
While Boeing is working on NASA's rockets, MIT is working on supply chain management that solves the logistical challenges inherent in extended space travel. The SLS trips are going to be far from the moon landings of the last century. When astronauts set out for the moon back in the 1960s, they were able to take everything they anticipated needing on board. A trip's time ranged from four to eight days, so working out the logistics was fairly straightforward. When it comes to longer and much more distant space trips, the logistics grow a lot more complex.
The Space Logistics Project
With funding from NASA, MIT launched the MIT Space Logistics Project, which comprises "the Interplanetary Supply Chain Management and Logistics Architectures (IPSCM&LA) project." The aim is to create a supply chain that would meet the needs of extended explorations on nearby bodies like the moon and Mars, as well as travel beyond those points.
The four-step plan
As in any engineering plan, redundancy is a virtue that has to be balanced against "cost-efficiency (few buffers, routes)," according to the MIT researchers. Working out the supply chain management system for space involves four key steps:
- Considering supply chain models on Earth
That includes working out the parallels between supply chains on Earth and those in space, as well as identifying where the two diverge.
- An analysis of the network of space logistics
That involves a "network model of space logistics, where the nodes are Earth-Moon-Mars-orbits, Lagrangian points, and expected landing-exploration sites," as illustrated in the picture.A space logistics network.
- Working through models of demand that account for uncertainty
"Major uncertainties in supply and demand of the space-logistics-network are quantified, such as cyclical demand variations, changes in the cargo-mix, transportation costs, and unplanned supply-line interruptions. These models also include storage and lifetime issues (degradation, obsolescence, cryo-boiloff) as well as consumption rates."
- Learning from space supply chains in effect
New models are to be integrated with systems that have been put into place for the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle.
Reconsidering the replicator
Devising a supply chain for long-term space exploration is a daunting task. But with the advances made in 3D printing, we are coming closer to addressing some of the logistical problems inherent in the supply chain in the same way that the Enterprise did. A 3D printer that operates in space is already set to launch in August. The possibility of expanded 3D printing in space will alleviate the need to pack everything that may be needed for longer expeditions and "allow astronauts a tool to create solutions to unforeseen situations," according to an article on the site MadeInSpace. As for the perfect cup of tea, alas, that's still relegated to science fiction.