By Gwen Salley, CEO of ZEBOX
Commercial spaceflight is here! From satellite launches to resupply missions to the International Space Station, private companies are rapidly turning the space economy into a multi-trillion dollar business opportunity. Realizing that potential, though, requires more than just bigger and better rockets. It also demands an enormous amount of logistical support, both on Earth and above it.
That’s why I was so thrilled to host a discussion on the future of space logistics at this year's annual Manifest conference, bringing together experts and industry leaders from top aerospace innovators and commercial space pioneers to map out new challenges and possibilities as we explore this thrilling new frontier.
Here are some of the key insights we discussed at Manifest 2023:
1- The opportunities are out of this world
The private sector is rapidly finding lucrative new opportunities in space. One especially promising area, said Johanne Lecomte of Thales Alenia Space, is “microgravity manufacturing” — leveraging weightlessness, the accessibility of the vacuum of space, and high radiation levels to revolutionize production processes. Creating artificial human organs could be easier in orbit, since on Earth tissue cultures tend to collapse under their own weight; the same is also true of growing high-quality crystals for use in pharmaceuticals and electronics. Some orbital manufacturing could even be carried out using extraterrestrial resources, with companies already launching pilot programs using robots to mine asteroids for metals and minerals. Space could even be used for recreation and retirement. I’d rather like to one day experience lunar retirement: the lower gravity means less pressure on weary joints, noted Andrew Nutter, co-founder of interplanetary transport start-up Gama.
“If you fall on the Moon, you don’t break your hip!” he joked.
2- Low-cost launches are critical
Many of these ventures are still at the planning stage, but with investments flowing it won’t be long until a whole range of space enterprises take shape above our heads. First, though, we need a resilient supply chain capable of moving raw materials and finished goods in and out of orbit, shuttling spacefarers there and back, and maintaining our expanding orbital infrastructure. Crucially, this supply chain will need to dramatically lower the cost of doing business in space. As it stands, it costs about $6,000 to move a pound of cargo into lower orbit, but private launch companies are already helping to bring the price tag down. New innovations like reusable spacecraft or even orbital elevators could make accessing space far more affordable, unleashing a surge in startup activity. “There are a lot of companies sitting on the sidelines, waiting to come in with really fresh ideas,” said Jiral Shah, business development VP at orbital hardware start-up Gravitics. “We’re really excited to see who’s on the other side of that flashpoint.”
3- Terrestrial supply chains must evolve too
Of course, getting from Earth to space is just one piece of the puzzle. Supply chains down here on Earth will have to evolve too in order to support this burgeoning new industry. More so than other sectors, Shah pointed out, the space industry is driven by unforgiving deadlines. Miss a launch window due to a supply chain snafu, and you might not get another opportunity for months.
“When you’re talking about terrestrial logistics for space, mission assurance is the critical aspect,” he said.
That’s complicated by the fact that space-grade components are niche items produced by only a handful of manufacturers, and can also be huge and hard to move around. Gravitics is currently figuring out how to move a 26-foot spacecraft module from Seattle to Cape Canaveral, for instance.
(Spoiler alert: a maritime solution might be best, Shah hinted).
What lies ahead
The logistics industry has always been about getting the job done on schedule, no matter what challenges you encounter. If there’s one thing I learned at Manifest, it’s that this can-do attitude will be critical as we work to realize the enormous potential of commercial space exploration.
By using all the experience, inventive thinking, and new technologies at their disposal, logistics leaders have a chance to open the door to the stars — and unlock incredible new opportunities as they collectively strive to boldly go where few businesses have gone before.