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Transportation and Logistics

One small step for man, one giant leap for logistics

For space travel to become a practical reality, it's necessary to set up supply chains and logistics.

As with any sort of travel, one of the biggest struggles of going to space is packing the necessary supplies. But unlike travelling to another country, there probably won't be somewhere to pick up a toothbrush at your destination if you forgot yours at home. And ensuring astronauts have enough food for their journey is way more complex than having them pack their own sandwiches.

Lunar logistics

This is why NASA sent out a Request for Proposal to the aeronautics industry for a system to deliver and store pressurized and unpressurized cargo to the Gateway lunar-orbital spacecraft for six months of docked operations followed by automatic disposal. NASA also requires that the logistics spacecraft must be able to launch on a commercial rocket. The RFPs were due in mid-October, and the winner will be awarded a contract up to $7 billion over 15 years.

The Gateway isn't just a terminal though, it's designed to be a hub for future lunar and Mars exploration missions, including the Artemis exploration program, which is committed to putting man – and for the first time, woman – on the lunar surface by 2024. Beyond lunar exploration, the Gateway is also planned to become a stepping stone on NASA's path to land humanity on the Red Planet.

Cosmic commercial cargo

But NASA shouldn't be the only agency thinking about building extra-terrestrial supply chains. For commercial companies like the Elon Musk owned SpaceX or Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin to accomplish their goals of space exploration and tourism. And the need for logistics runs deeper for companies and organizations proposing to mine asteroids for resources. In their case, they'll need logistics infrastructure robust enough to move cargo from their cosmic operations back to Earth, as well as from Earth.

While the engineering needed for space supply chains is still in development, and will prove an incredible leap in technology, many of the actual logistics for space travel are still relatively simple. In a way, it's a lot like air travel. As space is empty, the quickest route between places is always a straight line – you just have to calculate when orbits align to make that line as short as possible. While there are exceptions like sunspots, it's rare for anything unexpected to happen, so there's little need to prepare for variables. And there isn't much traffic in space…yet. 

Even with nothing in the way, any fan of golf, horseshoes, or darts could tell you there's an innate challenge to landing an object on a target from a distance. You want to calculate the most accurate route possible because changing directions in space is both incredibly difficult and costly. Routing becomes incredibly important because it's almost impossible to correct should it be wrong.

Filling the void

Like air travel, once space travel becomes more viable, even the vast empty void could start to feel a bit cramped. Eventually, space-traffic control systems will be required to prevent catastrophic conflicts of schedules and spacecraft. 

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If people should ever start having full-time jobs in space, regular shipments of cargo and supplies to and from Earth will have to operate as seamlessly as modern logistics allow them to on-planet.

It's always tempting to somehow reference Star Trek in articles like this one. However, I think the more apt comparison for the logistical challenges of space travel would be the show Gene Roddenberry compared Star Trek to when he pitched it for TV: Wagon Train. The problems logistics people will have to solve in space aren't so much exploring the final frontier as they are making sure that people are safe and fed as they reach out into the unknown. But for solving routing and other logistical problems here on Earth, we provide a variety of proven solutions that work anywhere on our home planet.

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