Deadlines ruled by the solar system and buying equipment for the harshest conditions: Nick Martindale on procurement’s role in space exploration
The past few months have been an exciting time for space enthusiasts. Just a few weeks after the Philae space lander managed to attach itself to a comet some 500 million miles from Earth, as part of the Rosetta mission in November 2014, NASA’s new Orion crew capsule completed an unmanned four-and-a-half hour test flight which could eventually lead to humans travelling into space beyond the international space station, to the moon or even Mars.
In the case of Rosetta, the bulk of the project was delivered by prime contractor Astrium, now part of Airbus Defence and Space, working alongside its own suppliers, on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA). “Probably the most bespoke part of the satellite is the payload, which is hundreds of bits of equipment that are integrated together to allow you to connect all the equipment up, and to antennas,” says Dr Michael Healy, procurement director at Airbus Defence and Space. “This could include down-converters, amplifiers and filters. But on the other side there’s the platform equipment, which can be avionics, solar arrays, sensors and propulsion equipment. We buy those or we make them in-house, and that’s a choice that we make and which we occasionally review.”
The Rosetta mission was launched in 2004, so its contracting and manufacturing elements took place well over a decade ago. More recently, Stefano Fiorilli, head of ESA’s procurement department, has focused on maintaining the international space station as well as developing the next generation of MeteoSat, which provides detailed imagery of Europe, the North Atlantic and Africa every 15 minutes to help meteorologists.
Fiorilli’s role stretches from sourcing initial feasibility studies to working closely with prime contractors on the design and manufacture of satellites or space infrastructure, including the automated transfer vehicles that dock on the international space station to equip astronauts with food and furniture and take away waste.