Researchers are considering the challenges of new space industries
The 21st century is witnessing the birth of a new industry: commercial space operations. Scores of private companies, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, are taking on tasks once exclusively performed by national governments, with big ambitions for off-earth tourism, mining and manufacturing.
While the field is creating huge opportunities for a new breed of entrepreneurs, it also presents a host of novel challenges. How to organize manufacturing operations on the International Space Station (ISS), or the moon? How to manage a 34-million-mile supply chain between the earth and Mars? How to deal with the growing threat of space debris?
These and other problems promise to extend the research — and its applications — of expert troubleshooters in the field of operations management.
Joel Wooten of the University of South Carolina and UCLA Anderson’s Christopher Tang see space as a fertile area for research in operations management. Applying earth-side methods to the industry’s unique challenges “offers the ability for researchers to directly impact outcomes that (at a minimum) are relevant and important in an exciting, new field and (at most) help determine the fate of humanity,” they write in “ Operations in Space: Exploring a New Industry.”
Their paper, published in Decision Sciences, isn’t a traditional account of a narrow research inquiry, but rather a rough road map the authors and others might follow in applying operations management research to commercial activity in the heavens.
Operations management is a relatively young academic field that deals with the design, production and delivery of goods and services. Among its concerns are more efficient supply chains, quality control and the sustainability of a business’s operations. Now, thanks to the ambitions of the space entrepreneurs, the field is turning to questions that will make earthly operations seem simple by comparison.
Over the past century, logistics have gone from a largely domestic concern — U.S. suppliers, say, feeding raw materials and components to final manufacturers — to a truly global web of commerce. Goods crisscross the world in sometimes baffling patterns to take advantage of pockets of labor, commodities, skill and capital. Operations management researchers, taking advantage of increases in computing power, have developed powerful analytic tools to conquer this complexity.
Supply chains in space face complications far greater than those of any earth-based counterpart. The ISS is only 254 miles from earth, closer than Phoenix to Los Angeles. A resupply mission takes about six hours from launch to docking, but that’s after many weeks of preparation. Then there’s the expense of simply escaping earth’s gravity; one study estimates that it costs $10,000 to lift half a kilogram of materials into orbit.
New research could explore how to balance the need for maintaining large inventories against the cost and infrequency of resupply missions. Researchers also could help to improve inventory management, a problem at the ISS. One study found that about 3 percent of U.S.-supplied items at the space station have been lost or at least not stored where they’re supposed to be. Quantifying the cost of out-of-stock items, obsolete parts and overall shrinkage could be a valuable research project, the authors say.
Space-based manufacturing is another rich field for researchers. Up until recently, everything used or consumed in space had to be made and shipped from earth. As the aspirations of space entrepreneurs become more ambitious — Musk, for instance, wants to send humans to Mars — carrying everything needed is less practical, if not impossible. Making some things in space becomes a necessity.
Already, on the ISS, astronauts using 3-D printers have made simple tools and devices, such as plastic finger splints. Made in Space, the company that provides the station’s 3-D printers, is developing technology that can manufacture and assemble large-scale metal structures at the ISS. The company also aims to make high-quality optical fiber for use in space and on earth.
At issue is what to build on earth and what to make in space. Researchers, the authors suggest, can find ways to best manage limited space-based manufacturing capacity by applying existing optimization models. Researchers also can help devise new quality-control techniques for items that have to withstand the inhospitable space environment, taking lessons from operations under extreme conditions in places like Antarctica.