Restocking the ISS Shelves

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The International Space Station (ISS) is a working science laboratory orbiting 240 miles above Earth and home to an international crew. Crews are often deployed for six months at time. So what happens when astronauts need new equipment to conduct the next science experiment or are running low on hygiene items?

From laptops and printers to clothing and housekeeping materials, Lockheed Martin is responsible for processing NASA cargo for ISS resupply through the Cargo Mission Contract (CMC). But preparing cargo for launch is more complicated than sending off a package in the mail or just packing your suitcase.

The required cargo is sent to the ISS via launch vehicle, but only after undergoing a rigorous process of planning, coordination, preparation and packing.

“Safety is the number one consideration of packing ISS cargo,” said Rick Hieb, vice president of Lockheed Martin Exploration & Mission support and former astronaut. “We want to ensure the crew knows the items are safe to unpack and ready for immediate use as soon as they receive a shipment.”

This means ensuring that every item is packed with care and forethought. Only compatible items are packed together. For instance, bleach and cleaner are never packed together in case of a leak. Other considerations also include the range of temperatures and the level of shock the freight might experience during transit and launch. In many cases, international partners launch ISS cargo, so the cargo has been transported by ground, air or sea before it ever reaches the launch site.

And scheduling an ISS resupply isn’t taken lightly. When designing new equipment, plans are put in place sometimes more than a year in advance to ensure cargo is delivered by the launch date. On the other hand, if the materials are “off the shelf,” the process can go from deciding what to launch to getting the cargo to the launch site in a few months.

Planning for physical space is critically important when restocking the ISS shelves – a major determinant of packing is the cargo capacity of the vehicle. NASA works with its international and commercial partners to send cargo to the ISS, so vehicles range from the Russian Soyuz that has little cargo space to the much larger European Automated Transfer Vehicle that has significant storage room.

About 12 vehicle launches to the ISS occur each year, transporting approximately 20,000 pounds of cargo to keep the crew fed, science experiments operational and vehicle consumables such as air, water and propulsion gases resupplied.  Approximately 5,000 pounds of recoverable cargo are returned each year to refurbish equipment and return invaluable scientific samples for ground processing.

All these logistics are conducted by a team of experienced Lockheed Martin employees based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Lockheed Martin has held CMC since 2003.

“The ISS crew is not effective unless they have the tools and materials they need to complete their missions,” said Hieb. “The Cargo Mission Contract ensures everything is at their fingertips.”

Posted February 28, 2013

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Left: Food for ISS crew members is packed into bulk overwrap bags (BOBs) along with filler foam to prevent shifting during launch.

Above: The BOB is packed into a cargo transfer bag, which is the container the food will be shipped in during launch.