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How logistics can power the future of space travel

Business · 4 min read

How logistics can power the future of space travel

We’ve sent men to the moon and put a robot on Mars.  Now, commercial space freight is becoming a reality thanks to DHL’s MoonBox delivery service.

On July 20, 1969, former US Navy pilot Neil Armstrong put his left foot on the powdery surface of the moon and uttered the now immortal words:

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Nearly 50 years later, that one small step is still there. With no atmospheric or volcanic activity to disturb it, Armstrong’s footprint will remain on the moon for a very long time: a permanent sign of humankind’s pioneering spirit1.

From here to eternity

So what better place to store your keepsakes than the surface of the moon? DHL are partnering with space launch and robotics company Astrobotic to offer its customers a world-first: the chance to send a small item you value highly to the moon.

It could be your great-grandmother’s engagement ring, a treasured family photo or your graduation certificate. The MoonBox service will load your precious item on to Astrobotic’s Peregrine Moon Lander space vehicle and deposit it on the lunar surface. The service is surprisingly cheap, with prices for very small items starting at less than $500. But the real magic comes from the moon itself: whenever you look up at its shining face, you’ll know what’s there.


infographic of DHL to the moon

Reigniting our love affair with space

Our relationship to space has changed over time. Formerly the preserve of governments locked in secretive competition, space has become more inclusive. The inspiration could be the International Space Station (ISS), a multinational space project that took its first human inhabitants in 2000, with crews from multiple nations carrying out a range of scientific experiments (and filming the occasional music video).

In 2011, NASA retired the iconic Space Shuttle Program, opening the door to new organizations like Elon Musk’s SpaceX2 and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin3. These ambitious ventures began winning lucrative NASA contracts to supply third-party logistics to the space station, using unmanned autonomous vehicles to deliver everything from fresh fruit and coffee to scientific instruments and repair materials.

NASA’s approach to sub-contracting and encouragement of private companies has kick-started a revolution in space exploration. The ‘space race’ is a distant memory. Today we have around a 1,000 satellites in orbit and approximately 85 space flight launches every year. Space has become big business.

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Space age entrepreneurialism

These young pretenders are making extraordinary progress. Richard Branson has launched his own Virgin Galactic service4 – not for shipping cargo to the ISS or launching satellites, but to give paying customers a taste of space travel.

For US$250k, lucky astronauts will take a trip in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle to low Earth orbit, about 1,200 miles above sea level. If you’ve got the money, it’s a tempting proposition, given that only about 550 people have ever been into space. So far Virgin Galactic has 700 names on its waiting list.

SpaceX is another trailblazer. It has successfully developed reusable rockets that can deliver a satellite or cargo vessel into space, and then land back down on Earth ready for the next launch. Previous commercial rockets were single-use only, making them financially and operationally inefficient. Founded just 15 years ago, SpaceX has already made satellite delivery and NASA cargo missions commercially viable.

Much like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX’s founder, PayPal and Tesla mastermind Elon Musk has his eye on bigger things. SpaceX is ambitiously planning to send two lucky (and presumable very wealthy) passengers around the moon in 2018, using its own Dragon cargo spacecraft5.

Supply chains in space

There are numerous challenges to putting passengers safely in space, from life-support systems to the physiological effects of micro-gravity. Commercial space travel will not go anywhere, however, without one major element: a supply chain in space. Previously, the challenge was international logistics. Now, the major new trend for the next 30 years and beyond is interstellar logistics.

Getting anything off the ground and into the air takes huge forces. But breaking free of the Earth’s gravitational pull into open space while carrying a full payload – what space logisticians call 'up mass' – takes incredible power (and a huge wallet).

At the moment, it costs a staggering US$6k per pound of cargo just to reach low Earth orbit. The cost drops if you’re transporting both up mass and down mass, when cargo comes back to Earth as well as up into space. Elon Musk believes this cost could be pushed below US$1k, and one day even down to the US$100 per pound level, similar to today’s commercial airline costs.

Delivering the future?

Could international (and especially intercontinental) deliveries be faster if they traveled not by land, air or sea, but through low Earth orbit? Right now, the cost of taking large amounts of cargo into low Earth orbit, circling the globe and then depositing the cargo in the right place is prohibitive.

The rewards, however, could be worthwhile. NASA is already discussing the creation of a spaceport that would act as a distribution hub for all supplies going between Earth and the many manned and unmanned space flights scheduled for the decades ahead.

In the short term at least, rocket scientists are more concerned with building an interplanetary supply chain, using unmanned autonomous vehicles to establish a lean and efficient supply chain that acts as the backbone of future space missions. Moon bases could be the last port of call before the starships of the future blast out into even deeper space.

That will help the numerous companies and nation states all hoping to be the first to recreate Aldrin’s famous gray powdery footprint, but this time in the dust of Mars. SpaceX, like Nasa, is on the road to the red planet. Its goal is a manned flight to Mars, with plans penciled in for the 2030s.

Yes, that’s right. We’re not just visiting Mars: we’re aiming to make a home there. And doing that will take a supply chain that’s truly out of this world.

Timeline tracking the history of pioneering

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