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Supply Chain Resiliency & the Red Planet

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

It has been six weeks since the Perseverance Rover completed its 34-million-mile journey and landed on Mars. In a few days, Perseverance will step aside to allow the first ever, Mars based helicopter, Ingenuity, to take flight. As Ingenuity prepares to explore the Martian skies, I cannot help but reflect on the monumental effort that started years before launch with the many hundreds of suppliers around the world who built components to support this mission.

[Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech]

“… every part […] was built by the lowest bidder.”

In 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to go to space. It was a Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle that carried Shepard to orbit. When asked what he thought about while sitting atop the Redstone Rocket, Shepard replied “the fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder”.

The best jokes always have a touch of truth. Not so much that each part was built by the lowest bidder, per se. The Redstone rocket (and most modern launch vehicles) was roughly comprised of ~100k components and someone, or some team, actually knew who built each one of them. They also knew if they were the lowest bidder, or just the only ones with the technical ‘know-how’. In the business of space exploration, the origin of raw materials used, quality certifications of the manufacturers, results of sample testing, and more are all known and documented. This practice is called “Material Traceability”. It is a crucial step in ratting space assets as ‘flight ready’.

“This, this and nuthin’ but that”

In the Space industry, total supply chain transparency is contractually mandated at every level of manufacture, assembly, and test. From the payload integrator down to the steel mill, the origin story must be documented and delivered downstream, through the supply chain. Why?

Remember the scene in Apollo 13, when the guy dumps the box of parts on the table and says “we gotta find a way to make this, fit into the hole made for this, using nuthin’ but that”? That real-life team of engineers also required access to all the documents from the hundreds of suppliers that made “this, this and nuthin’ but that” - who made it & where; how was it tested; inspection reports; engineering waivers; certificates of conformance; and more. In that moment, supply chain visibility was not only mission critical, it was life & death for the Apollo Astronauts.

Transparency in the Supply Chain of Space

Access to documents that certify the provenance of every component in a space asset provides the necessary visibility to mitigate risks pre-launch and troubleshoot on-orbit events. When something goes into orbit, we typically cannot bring it back home to address product recalls or repair bad parts. Total transparency is required to maximize value of a launch and ensure mission success.

Years ago, one of the Perseverance Rover suppliers called on me to resolve a quality issue. Some of the essential components for their instrument arrived without proper material certifications. Authenticity of the alloys was unknown, and the component manufacturer did not have test data to satisfy NASA’s standards for material traceability. A loss of visibility in the supply chain. My company was able to analyze and certify that the chemical makeup of the various alloys was qualified for space. Transparency was restored, and risk eliminated.

Digital Transformation

Transparency in the Space industry isn’t a perfect science and mistakes still happen. The Challenger’s catastrophic O-ring failure was the result of imperfect transparency and a flawed decision process. Falsified material certifications, counterfeit electronics and fraudulent inspection reports can slip past the most watchful eye in a manual and centralized system. The good news is that innovation of supply chain tools is accelerating. AI, machine learning, Blockchain, IoT sensors and smart products are all finding homes within advancing supply chain solutions.

We cannot have resilient space assets without resilient supply chains to build them. Supply chain resiliency doesn’t exist without transparency. As the Space Industry advances and grows, we need innovative solutions that digitally transform the supply chain and maintain transparency. Supply chain transparency, and thus, resiliency, will dictate our ability to continue exploring the vast corners of the universe.


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