In this article we share a range of procurement advice from experienced practitioners across the space industry.
As the sector grows and democratizes, with new suppliers and innovations coming to market every quarter, understanding how best to manage your procurement and supply chain is becoming challenging.
New space missions and services have more commercial options than ever, from emerging sources of supply across the world. But supplier communications and marketing are still immature in the industry and there is a lack of standardization in many areas of the marketplace.
Whether developing and testing novel innovation, or creating a new service for an established space-based concept (to compete in terms of price, speed, or quality) mission designers and program managers need a robust supply chain.
On this page you can find a range of insights and advice designed to help space suppliers to build one and to navigate challenges in space procurement today.
Please note that the experts named below have provided procurement advice in a personal capacity, and nothing that they have shared should be taken as representing official positions of any of their current or former employers, or of any boards, organizations, or associations they may be associated with.
- Ralph Kirkwood of Spire
- Gabriele McStanislav-Cudjoe of the United States Space Force (USSF)
- Tatenda Marimo of the Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency (ZINGSA)
- Tim Berry, formerly of VAST and SpaceX
- Geovian Stowers of the Kenya Space Agency (KSA)
- Federico Leopardi of RUAG Aerostructures
- Marco Sacchettino formerly of ClearSpace
- Kihwan Choi at CONTEC
- Elio Santoro of Lilium (and formerly of Satellogic)
Ralph Kirkwood of Spire
Spire’s constellation of multipurpose satellites is used by organizations and businesses all over the world. The satellites provide advanced data and analytics about the Earth and its atmosphere in order to inform operations and decisions across a variety of fields.
Some of the most well-known categories of the services offered by Spire are maritime monitoring (via AIS technology), aviation tracking, weather solutions, and Earth intelligence.
With offices on 3 continents, hundreds of employees, and over 130 satellite missions to date, Spire has a complex and extended supply chain with multiple vendors and engineering disciplines involved.
To find out more about how some at Spire view the changing nature of space procurement today, we asked Ralph Kirkwood, Supplier Relationship Manager at Spire, for his advice to engineers and mission designers. He said;
For 2024 I’d recommend remembering three key things: know your values; know what you’re looking for; and know what you don’t know.
Firstly, any sourcing needs to be in line with your company’s values. A supplier that doesn’t match your values will not be a supplier that can deliver the best outcomes for your company.
Given the vastly changing space industry, you need to be clear on the critical success factors to achieving your procurement mission. Having these critical success factors spelled out clearly will act as your guiding star through your projects.
On the flip side, you need to be aware of what you don’t know and keep your eyes open for opportunities to learn. Use the expertise of suppliers to add to your own and help you achieve your goals faster.
Although space is primarily a B2B or B2G industry, vendor relationships need to go beyond technical compatibility. As Ralph points out, buyers and suppliers should be aligned at multiple levels to ensure success.
Space missions are complex and have long time horizons. Teams need to be able to communicate and work together effectively throughout, and companies need to ensure they are happy to be associated with those in their supply chain for extended periods.
Ralph also discusses the critical challenge of identifying the most relevant options in a changing market, where supplier marketing and communications can often be weak. This is something we’ve helped hundreds of mission teams with and we definitely agree that Ralph has highlighted a crucial issue.
His emphasis on understanding the critical success factors to achieving your procurement mission is a great place to start this journey.
Gabriele McStanislav-Cudjoe of the United States Space Force (USSF)
As you know, the United States Space Force (USSF) is the branch of the US military responsible for dealing with military-related matters in space. It consists of more than 8,000 military personnel and has an operating budget of around $30 billion.
Since its inception in 2019, the USSF has operated or contributed to a variety of different programs and spacecraft including:
- The X-37B reusable spaceplane,
- Several missile warning and defense satellites, and
- The US Space Surveillance Network (SSN)
With such a diverse array of activities, at larger scales than much of the rest of the industry, it is tricky to extrapolate general advice about procurement from USSF’s activities.
The days of designing military systems are over. If we don’t design capabilities that are resilient and reliable to be used when needed, all the time and money spent on it will be a waste.
This is a really interesting insight given how the industry is evolving and there are clear overlaps with changes in more general defense procurement, of which USSF is a part.
For example, in the US the Pentagon’s 2024 budget request has been described as primarily a “procurement budget”, rather than mainly focussing on R&D. Also, in Europe military leaders have published proposals to update the continent’s defense capabilities with a focus on more conventional equipment and filling gaps in existing resources.
Government procurement from companies that have already developed the capacity to rapidly and reliably offer solutions that agencies like the USSF regularly need is more attractive than one-off, bespoke, and extended engineering projects for individual systems. This is a common discussion in the space industry of course!
We believe that achieving this comes down to greater flexibility and understanding, on both sides (public and private) of the supply chain, of the higher-level requirements that industry sectors must meet.
The lead procurement official at Space Force, Frank Calvelli, has been something of a pioneer in this area.
In 2022 he openly published nine “space acquisition tenets” designed to be used as a framework to improve procurement. The aim is to encourage commercial contractors to meet their timelines and obligations, and to develop new, more efficient ways of working to fulfil contracts.
By publishing the tenets openly, Space Force is being upfront with industry actors about its expectations and needs, enabling the supply chain to adapt where relevant.
Tatenda Marimo of the Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency (ZINGSA)
The Zimbabwe National Geospatial and Space Agency (ZINGSA) is a wholly owned Government of Zimbabwe entity responsible for coordinating and encouraging development in several areas of space activity.
ZINGSA has four main departments; Space Operations and Launch Services, Space Engineering, Space Science, and Geospatial Science and Earth Observation. It also offers services in drone technology and commercial fleet tracking.
We spoke with Tatenda G S Marimo Lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe and Space Operations & Launch Services Scientist/Engineer at ZINGSA, to hear his advice on space procurement for 2024 and beyond. He said:
The buyers and engineers in the space sector need to consider the increasingly complex supply chain management issues which constantly expose organizations to novel risks.
It is also important for organizations to craft innovative strategies and approaches that take advantage of the supply chain disruptions which are likely to persist in the year 2024 while leveraging on the anticipated increase in demand for space related services and products.
Since it was formed in 2018, ZINGSA’s remit has steadily broadened to several areas of space and unmanned vehicles. This has clearly led to the agency being involved in increasingly complex supply chains and ecosystems, that bring with them a greater exposure to risk, as Tatenda has highlighted.
It is also interesting that he has emphasized seeing supply chain disruptions as opportunities. This is something that we have seen at satsearch across the industry – it’s simple supply and demand.
In recent years there have been disruptions in many industries and organizations have learned to be flexible, adjust expectations, and rely on trusted relationships. However, in the space industry we’ve seen many examples of market inefficiencies that have become embedded in the ecosystem due to the lack of competition.
But this is changing as capabilities are growing around the world.
Today, wherever manufacturers are offering prices or lead times that are unacceptable to mission designers, new entrants have the potential to capture market share. We see this data first-hand while supporting thousands of engineers with their procurement and trade studies – and it is certainly making for a dynamic and exciting industry!
Tim Berry, formerly of VAST and SpaceX
Vast is a US-based space company developing a private space station, called Haven-1, in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The company has facilities in Long Beach and Hawthorne, California, as well as a test facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Haven-1 is being designed to be deployed by and dock with the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, with the first mission targeted for launch before August 2025. This is then set to be followed by a crewed mission to the station, with a 4-man team docking and utilizing the facility for up to 30 days.
If everything goes to plan, future missions will see Haven-1 being transitioned from acting as an independent crewed space station to being connected as a module to a larger Vast space station that is currently in development.
This is a huge endeavour and involves an extensive and complex supply chain. To find out more about the challenges involved, we contacted Tim Berry, former Vice President of Manufacturing at Vast and a former engineering lead at SpaceX, to ask about space procurement in 2024. Today, Tim is Head of Manufacturing & Quality at JetZero – a US company building an advanced jet liner.
Identifying and planning for risks is a must for any supply chain leader. Although we are moving on from the days where COVID could be blamed for every delay or difficulty (true or not), we are still mired in a situation where many vendors are backed up on orders.
Vendors can only staff up so much to catch up before it doesn’t make economical sense for them. So ultimately understanding where you have the biggest risks in your supply chain and creating an alternates/spares plan or dual sourcing is essential to ensuring no shortfalls.
In addition, with the advent of additive manufacturing and a renewed focus on re-shoring of American manufacturing, there are many opportunities to eliminate international difficulties by looking at US suppliers, especially those leveraging 3d printing.
The flexibility of various cutting-edge additive manufacturing technologies allows US-based vendors to be nimble with responding to demand growth by not relying on hard tooling or long-lead forgings.
To summarize, figure out where you have the biggest risks in your supply chain, make a plan to bridge the gap or eliminate the risk, and while doing so keep American manufacturers at the forefront of your mind.
A privately built and operated space station was inconceivable to most just a couple of decades ago – so the fact that it there are now several in progress just shows how far the industry has come.
But as Tim highlights; this is a project with very low tolerance for risk. Safety concerns in any environment are amplified when humans take part in missions – doubly so for an environment as inhospitable as space.
And mitigating such risks must be done holistically, including at the supply chain level. While a CubeSat startup can be flexible to get the best deal, Vast can’t tolerate year-long lead times on replacement parts for Haven-1’s life support system.
Pre-emptively planning for supply chain disruptions, whether or not they arise, is critical – and scales with the complexity of the mission. Let us know if you need an expert partner to assist with this.
Geovian Stowers of the Kenya Space Agency (KSA)
Based in Nairobi, the Kenya Space Agency (KSA) is the national space agency coordinating activities and projects across Kenya.
Kenya’s involvement in space activities stretches back to 1964 when the government collaborated with Italy to create a satellite launching and tracking base in Malindi. Over the next few decades more than 20 sounding rockets and 9 rockets launched from the facility.
Kenya then established a National Space Secretariat in 2009 which was succeeded by the Kenya Space Agency in 2017.
Today KSA promotes research activities and nurtures the private space sector, with a range of education- and business-focussed initiatives including research grants, satellite imagery data provision, and STEM outreach.
Given the range of activities that the agency is focussing on, we asked Geovian T. Stowers, Aerospace Engineer at KSA, for his advice for those focussed on space procurement. He provided the following:
Given the dynamic nature of the space industry and potential disruptions, it’s crucial to prioritize resilience and diversification in your supply chain, by considering the following:
Stay updated on international trade regulations and compliance standards. Changes in regulations can impact procurement processes, and staying compliant is essential for maintaining a smooth and uninterrupted supply chain. A good example is the AS9100D Quality Management System for Aerospace Industry.
Stay abreast of emerging technologies and alternative suppliers. Regularly evaluate the market for new innovations and potential partners to enhance the agility and competitiveness of your supply chain. Be sure to check the Technology Readiness Level TRL Levels of the components before purchase.
Diversify your supplier base to mitigate the impact of potential disruptions and ensure a more resilient supply chain. Relying on a single supplier for critical components can pose significant risks and late product development times.
One should conduct thorough risk assessments to identify vulnerabilities in their supply chain. Evaluate geopolitical, environmental, and technological risks that could affect the timely delivery of components and services.
Maintain strategic stockpiles of essential components to buffer against unforeseen disruptions. This can be particularly important for items with long lead times or those prone to supply chain bottlenecks.
Foster open communication and collaboration with suppliers. Develop strong relationships to gain insights into their capabilities, potential challenges, and contingency plans. This collaboration can prove invaluable during times of uncertainty.
Embrace digital tools and technologies, such as blockchain and real-time tracking systems, to enhance transparency and traceability within the supply chain. This can improve overall efficiency and responsiveness.
Consider integrating sustainable and environmentally friendly practices into your supply chain. This not only aligns with global trends but can also contribute to long-term cost savings and positive brand perception.
By prioritizing resilience, diversification, and staying adaptive to emerging trends, buyers and engineers in the space industry can navigate the complexities of procurement and supply chain management in 2024 effectively.
National space agencies always need to focus on the needs of their citizens when developing missions or fostering their domestic industry. But this is no easy task when resources are limited and the agency doesn’t have a large amount of established assets and capabilities to build on.
Nevertheless, domestic demand in Kenya, and across East Africa, is growing and both the KSA and the industry in the region are developing capacities to meet it – as can be seen from the diverse array of supply chain information that Geovian has mentioned.
These are very important aspects of any space procurement program, in the public or private sector, and show how many areas of improvement there can be for any organization.
Federico Leopardi of RUAG Aerostructures
RUAG Aerostructures is a global manufacturer of aerospace parts and related technologies. In the space industry the company supplies various parts for launchers and satellites, as well as providing semiconductor lithography solutions.
RUAG offers products and services to the space industry through the brand Beyond Gravity, which was previously called RUAG Space. Today, Beyond Gravity is the largest space supplier in Switzerland and has recently opened a new Innovation & Digital Hub in Portugal which it intends to grow significantly over the next few years.
The company has provided parts and systems to several recent, or ongoing, missions including 4 components on ULA’s Vulcan Centaur Rocket that launched in January 2024, a constellation On Board Computer (cOBC) for Quantum Space’s inaugural flight of the Ranger multi-purpose vehicle, and several products for ESA’s Euclid telescope, which launched in July 2023.
There are many parallels between the space and aerospace industries, and RUAG is one of many companies with a commercial presence in both areas.
Space is the next frontier where private companies can finally compete and this will lead Supply Chains (SCs) to become the real field where competition is won.
In my opinion this technology has always started from an elite point of view, where only a selected group of people could use it, due to its high operating costs. Usually, Governments have started projects, as is in this case for space.
Nonetheless, the more the technology advances the more popular it gets (see cellphones, computers and now space), therefore the linchpin to success would be: make it more accessible, cheaper, and more efficient.
It is important to find the right balance between multiple sourcing, to minimise the risk of disruptions along the SC, as well as recognising the importance of supplier knowledge, which can save the project when it comes to real priority setting, helping to make it more efficient, cheaper, and more accessible.
It is very interesting in this advice that Federico has highlighted how supply chains can be a core aspect of business success, in the face of growing competition.
Your supply chain partially determines the lead times, prices, product availability, reliability, and performance metrics that you can go to market with. Improvements in the three key areas Federico highlights, accessibility, cost, and efficiency, let you build better products, faster, and for lower costs.
Again, the importance of minimizing disruptions is also mentioned. But, as Federico states, the solution is to find the right sourcing balance, and this means different things to different companies. Too few vendor options and you have a vulnerable supply chain, too many and decision-making slows down while managing the ecosystem gets harder.
The aim is to get the most suitable and relevant options for your mission or service. And if you need any advice or support for this, we’d love to help.
Marco Sacchettino formerly of ClearSpace
ClearSpace is a European in-orbit servicing (IOS) company building next-generation robotics for space. The company was founded to take advantage of growing demand for unmanned in-orbit solutions as well as the removal of space debris.
Today the company has offices in Switzerland, the UK, Luxembourg, and the USA, and is working with a variety of organizations to advance IOS and active debris removal solutions.
In particular, ClearSpace is currently pursuing two major missions; ClearSpace-1 and CLEAR. ClearSpace-1 is described as the world’s first active debris removal mission and will involve the capture and deorbiting of a derelict space debris object of more than 100 kg. Launch is targeted for 2026, onboard the Arianespace Vega C rocket.
The CLEAR mission (Clearing of the LEO Environment with Active Removal) is a UK Space Agency project to remove two UK-registered derelict objects from LEO. ClearSpace is leading a consortium of several other organizations, and completed the design phase at the end of 2023.
Effective IOS hardware is going to require a high level of both operational versatility (compared to standard satellite missions) and risk mitigation due to the expected applications – a tricky balance!
A robust supply chain will be critical in such missions and many are looking for ideas and inspiration from outside of the space sector, such as from the automotive industry, to inform their approach. However, as Marco Sacchettino, Former Satellite Lead Engineer and Flight Segment Manager at ClearSpace, explains; this can be a difficult challenge:
At the component level, in order to use automotive components in the space sector, I consider the traceability of the components, the certification of the processes and the availability of data relating to radiation tests to be important.
In my experience, every time we hypothesized the use of automotive components, we ran into the problem of traceability and radiation tests results.
At the equipment level, again, the traceability of the components used and the visibility of the V&V, including burn-in which would allow the use of equipment designed for automotive use also in the space sector.
Many industry commentators have discussed how space companies can use technology and learn from other industries, particularly aerospace and automotive. But as Marco explains, this isn’t a simple process.
Space missions have unique technology requirements and qualification processes, so re-using components from other domains needs to be approached carefully.
In addition, as Marco also highlights, traceability is becoming more important as supply chains are extending and crossing national borders. There are many areas of space missions where sensitive information and/or dual-use technologies are involved, and certain end-user applications can define hardware origins and export controls.
The ability to trace the sources and journeys of components is crucial to ensuring that regulations are adhered to, lower mission risks, and develop more robust technology production in house.
Kihwan Choi at CONTEC
CONTEC is a space technology manufacturer based in Daejeon, South Korea. The company was founded in 2015 and today offers a variety of services including satellite image processing and data analysis along with technical support across areas such as launch operations.
CONTECT also offers a managed ground station network service with facilities in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as ground segment planning for new missions.
The company plans to build the first commercial launch site in Asia and develop its own satellite. It also intends to develop new satellite communication capabilities and expand on its existing ground station resources.
Ultimately, if successful, this will mean it can offer a complete, one-stop solution enabling CONTEC to build, launch, deploy, and operate satellites totally in house.
This multi-faceted challenge requires CONTEC to coordinate a variety of supply chains. To get some insights into how this is being managed in the company, we spoke to Kihwan Choi, Space Technology Development Team Manager at the company, who explained:
Compatibility in the system is very important between the satellite and ground system.
Firstly, we recommend communication subsystems which comply with CCSDS or other standards.
There are lots of compatible equipment for CCSDS and we have a lot of experience operating these.
Although it is possible to use SDR or other COTS equipment with modification of the source or parts, following standards makes it simpler to build a communication channel.
Standardization is always a hot topic in the space industry, particularly as new markets open up around the world.
The Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS) standards have been developed by experts from more than 28 different nations and used by over 1,000 space mission teams.
However, many subsystems and components are custom-developed for space missions or are altered during the engineering, design reviews, and even qualification processes.
Therefore, when procuring new technology you should certainly consider what standards are applicable for the technology you need, but be flexible enough to consider alternatives, as long as you have the expertise to work with them effectively, as Kihwan mentions.
Elio Santoro of Lilium (and formerly of Satellogic)
Geospatial data and satellite imagery have revolutionized many industries and services on Earth and Satellogic has become one of the primary providers to offer access to them.
The company was founded in 2010 and went public, with a listing on the Nasdaq, in 2022. Today Satellogic offers a variety of space-based services including data for terrestrial fields such as agriculture, mining, infrastructure, environmental monitoring and more.
The company also provides complete Earth Observation (EO) satellite packages (including launch, mission operations, and support) as well as a Constellation-as-a-Service model for EO applications.
Lilium is a new generation aerospace company based in Germany. It was founded in 2015 and went public in 2021, with a vision to bring to market an electric vertical take-off and landing jet that can offer very low emission and flexible transport options around the world.
My main advice is to spend more time in the sourcing process, i.e. in scouting the market for potential suppliers: the number of space hardware suppliers or simply of companies willing to enter the space market has increased tremendously in the last few years, with a healthy effect on available technologies, lead times and of course prices.
As mentioned, there is a lot of crossover between aerospace and space companies, so it is interesting to hear Elio’s clear advice here, as influenced by both domains.
Identifying relevant suppliers takes time and expertise. The quality of information that different manufacturers make available about their portfolios differs significantly from company to company and it is challenging for any individual team to identify potential new innovations they can use.
But extra time spent in the sourcing progress can save significant costs and engineering time further down the line.
Managing your supply chain effectively and efficiently isn’t easy in any technical domain – and this is certainly the case in the space industry.
The experts quoted in this article have highlighted several areas that experienced mission teams are likely to very familiar with, and that newer teams need to bear in mind when assessing the market.
Here’s a brief summary of the main pieces of procurement advice shared above:
- Select vendors that align with your values and with whom you are happy to be associated for a long time
- Clearly set out your procurement goals and technical requirements before approaching the supply chain
- Consider assessing suppliers that have already provided the technology or capability you need first, rather than those with the capacity to develop it for you
- Understand how supply issues relate to mission risks, and what you can do to mitigate these – such as dual sourcing, stockpiling, and creating an alternates/spares plan
- Be aware of alternative options when supply chains are disrupted – nimble suppliers will turn these issues into opportunities, and this should give you new options, if you can find them!
- Alternative options can look different to established supply – e.g. CNC machining shops vs. additive manufacturing providers
- Understand that multiple sourcing must be balanced; you need enough information and options to make progress with confidence, but not so much that it is paralyzing
- Stay up to date with the regulations, compliance, and technical standards that have an impact on your work, and request such information from vendors when needed
- Determine what level of traceability and transparency is relevant for your work upfront, and ensure all procurement is carried out in line with this. This is particularly important if attempting to repurpose technologies developed for other domains
Hopefully these pointers will help you improve your supply chain management and procurement approaches in the space industry.
And if you need extra assistance, our expert procurement team can help. We have supported over 400 missions and assisted thousands of engineers and executives in identifying suitable suppliers for their specific needs.
Please click here to find out more about how this works or, if you have any immediate requirements for an upcoming mission or project, simply fill out this short form today and we’ll get you answers from the market fast (and for free).
Thanks for reading!
We are very grateful for the insights of the experts shared above. And as mentioned, all of this advice was provided in a personal capacity, and nothing quoted here should be taken as representing official positions of any current or former employer, or of any board, organization, or association that any of the named contributors may be associated with.
Please note that input for this article was requested from a wide range of industry experts from multiple organizations, countries, genders, nationalities, departments, job seniorities, and operating areas. We have included all responses received, without bias and in good faith.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch at any time at [email protected].