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 a time. So what happens when astronauts need new equipment to conduct the next science experiment or are running low on hygiene items?

Annually, Lockheed Martin processes about 25,000 pounds of NASA cargo—from laptops and printers to clothing and housekeeping materials – to resupply the ISS through the Cargo Mission Contract. But preparing cargo for launch is more complicated than sending off a package in the mail or just packing your suitcase.

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

 “To be effective, the ISS crew needs the right tools and materials at the right time to complete its mission,” says Jerry McDonald, the Lockheed Martin program manager for the Cargo Mission Contract. “Safety is the first consideration when packing ISS cargo. We need to ensure the crew knows the items are safe to unpack and ready for immediate use when a shipment arrives.”

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This means packing every item 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 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, rail or sea before reaching the launch site.

Scheduling an ISS resupply is a serious undertaking. When designing new equipment, plans are put in motion more than a year in advance to be ready for the launch date.

“On occasions when NASA must request a late change in the manifest—the list of items headed to ISS—the team works quickly and precisely to accommodate the changes to ensure the supply chain remains unbroken,” says McDonald.

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.

In addition to cargo headed to the space station, approximately 5,000 pounds of recoverable cargo come back to Earth each year to refurbish equipment and return invaluable scientific samples for ground processing. Lockheed Martin expedites the return of the samples from splashdown to laboratory in less than 12 hours to preserve the science.

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 the Cargo Mission Contract since 2003.

Updated April 2, 2015.

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highlights
  • 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).
  • 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. 

Photo Captions:
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.