Space Logistics, Challenges Ahead

The current payload launching momentum will force us to think about space logistics sooner than we think.

Stacked shipping pallets of concrete blocks in a large outdoor warehouse
“Space Logistics, Challenges Ahead” by Monica Hernandez. February 2023.

I recently drove to South Florida from the Space Coast in Brevard County along the interstate highway. It was still cold and dark at 3:30 AM. Getting dangerously close to the busy highway, the occasional courageous deer surfaced from the pitch-black roadside vegetation. I had hot tea to keep warm but drove without listening to music. It was too early. Primed for deep introspection and contemplation by going straight, I cracked open my car window to avoid the potential whiff of drowsiness. The fresh, dewy air was perfumed with Florida’s greenery. I also heard the constant buzz from the semi-trailer trucks rushing ahead with their robot-like metallic colors and silvery headlights. It was an early peek into the state’s busy shipping and logistics arteries.  

Developments for in-space logistical infrastructure might not currently be as widely discussed in the news. However, as I drove south that day, accompanied by the semi-trailer trucks faithfully transporting goods and materials to their final destinations, it seemed that writing about logistics should be at the forefront of any objective assessment mapping out humanity’s roadmap beyond Earth’s orbit.

Building the case for a unified infrastructure  

Numerous startups and new businesses specializing in space logistics services have surfaced over the past years, including onboard data processing and in-space electric propulsion for in-orbit autonomous spacecraft maneuvers. I’ve featured some of these companies in previous articles, especially those based in Spain. Lately, the French startup Exotrail — founded in 2015 — has already been making waves with the newly minted funding round of US$58 million to scale up their in-space transportation services, including research and development for their electric propulsion systems for satellites in  Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and cislunar missions. Exotrail’s Adrien Palun and Paul Lascombe penned a thoughtful article in 2022 about Space logistics, emphasizing the need to think  more broadly about the growing constellation of satellites.  

Paul and Lascombe explained:

“We can already see that the lack of mobility acts as a serious brake on both the overall cost and the performance of these constellations. From launch to operations, different types of mobility are required for the satellites. The obvious one is access to space, which requires powerful rockets to escape from Earth’s gravity, but, after being released, the spacecraft will need to reach its operational orbit, maintain it and retire from it at the end of its lifetime.
Considering that each constellation is unique in its structure, in the service it provides and in the associated business model, each operator may have a personalised set of problems…
As the space economy is expected to be worth more than a trillion dollars by the end of this decade, we can wonder how the needs of space logistics will evolve.
The next generation of these vehicles will include reusability to reduce the expandable cost of mobility in orbit based only on the cost of propellant. By acquiring the capability to dock and refill, these vehicles will be able to provide a new range of applications as part of in-orbit servicing. Refueling vehicles will also require propellant depots in orbit with their own infrastructure and logistics.
The evolution of the logistics will enable the emergence of a new space industry, not only limited to mobility for satellite but extended to in-space freight transportation…”

Palun and Lacombe primarily focus on key satellite challenges, including tackling the lack of mobility with in-orbit refueling or repositioning services, which also relate to their company’s broad portfolio of services. However, they also hint at our civilization’s broader needs for in-space sustainability, including in-orbit assembly, manufacturing, etc.

Similarly, a 2004 AIAA Space Logistics Technical Committee Position Paper titled “Recommended Government Actions to Address Critical U.S. Space Logistics” also described the infrastructure needed beyond spaceports, launching payloads, and in-orbit maneuvering. Although this paper dates back almost two decades, the authors recommended a task force to start working on the in-space highway and trucking systems, settlements, and industry requirements because reusable rocket launchers ultimately remove the barriers to integrated space logistics architectures. And the mastery of a unified infrastructure system enables the progressive expansion of human life beyond Earth’s orbit.

The authors wrote:

“These two centuries of successful experience have shown that building new infrastructure is an important means of creating the expertise, experience, and industrial capabilities that constitute mastery of operations in a new frontier; whether this is the opening of new lands, such as with the Transcontinental Railroad, or the opening of new virtual frontiers, as with the Internet. The clear need to develop mastery of operations in space can best be addressed by building the first generation of true space logistics capabilities enabling routine human and robotic operations throughout, first, the Earth-Moon system, and then the central solar system.”

Paying Close Attention

I’ve been paying close attention to the conversation of space logistics and in-space infrastructure. There’s an evident sense of urgency at the highest levels of militaries and governments worldwide. For example, the United States Space Systems Command (SSC) hosted a “Space Mobility” conference in Orlando, Florida on February 21 - 23. The SSC is the Space Force’s procurement field command headquartered at the Los Angeles Air Force base. The conference brought together several top military, government, and industry leaders to advance the frameworks for robust logistics infrastructure in space.  

Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command was quoted in the conference by SpaceNews on the challenge of long-term planning with the lack of satellite mobility.

“We don’t build a ship or a tank or an aircraft and say you’re going to operate this for the next 15 or 20 years and you need to plan your fueling and all your operations based on the fact that you’re never going to refuel these ever again.”

While the integrated infrastructure focus has been and will be primarily on improving in-orbit satellite logistics in the short term, I suspect the current launching momentum – including crewed spacecraft – will carry us forward to thinking about space trucks and freighters sooner than we think.