Logistics Lessons: Part I

Shipping Spacecraft Around the Globe

Customers looking to launch smallsats into orbit first have to get them to the launch site, often in remote locations. Shipping your satellite is far more complex than most people realize.

That’s why customers look to us for expertise in getting a spacecraft to a launch site, safely and on schedule. We help our customers with everything from choosing the right custom container for the spacecraft to finding the best freight forwarder to handle their unique cargo.

The smallsat industry is global, and that means satellites and support equipment frequently cross international borders to reach their launch destination. Launch providers select launch locations that maximize a launch vehicle’s performance capabilities to place satellites in orbit, not for what is convenient for shipping.

For example, Arianespace selected French Guiana as a primary launch location to take advantage of the country’s geographical location near the equator. It’s a great location for launching satellites into orbit. However, French Guiana is not on any commercial freight airline’s scheduled routes, and there’s only one major airline that has regularly scheduled flights to the country. In other words, shipping options to the country are extremely limited. Through years of experience, we are able to help our customers navigate this process. We know which freight forwarders to use (and even more importantly, which to avoid!), and how to clearly communicate critical issues to the folks “on the ground” who might see a spacecraft as just another shipment.

Import and export regulations also make shipping spacecraft around the globe challenging. For example, Brazil’s regulations are structured to incentivize production within its borders. Knowing that, on a recent mission we engaged with a freight forwarder that helped us navigate Brazil’s notoriously challenging customs environment to complete a shipment to the country. This undoubtedly saved us weeks in delays. Imagine missing your window for integration and then your launch because your satellite is stuck in a bureaucratic entanglement. These common mistakes by first-time flyers are easily avoidable.

Another lesson learned is when shipping cargo across international borders, it’s much easier to “push” goods out of a country (an export) than it is to “pull” goods into a country (an import). Customs regulations support both exports and imports, but the complexities increase greatly when importing cargo. In either scenario, countries have numerous rules and regulations in place to ensure the safe and economical flow of goods into and out of its country. For a recent mission, Spaceflight imported a customer’s satellite from Mexico to our integration facility in Seattle. To complete the shipment, Spaceflight filed all required documents with both Mexico and U.S. customs agencies. Shipment information filed with customs agencies is very specific, so the language barrier and slight differences in specific logistics and customs terms added to the complexity. 

Here’s how we planned and orchestrated the shipment of a spacecraft from Mexico to New Zealand for one of our recent launches with Rocket Lab: 

Some other concerns to think about: temperature, humidity, and cargo security. Consider that a satellite might arrive in India for a launch and sit on a runway or in a cargo processing facility in 100+ degree temperatures and nearly 100 percent humidity for many hours. It’s important to know who is receiving the shipment and that they are fully prepared to take ownership of it as quickly as possible.

Customers put tremendous time and expense into building their satellites. Such investments should not be jeopardized by poor planning around logistics, but it’s often one of the last aspects that is considered. Don’t risk damage to your spacecraft or jeopardize missing your launch because of poor shipping plans — talk with us early and often. Ensuring the health and security of your cargo is a high priority for Spaceflight and we’ve got the experience and global relationships to make the shipping experience a successful one.  

By Ben Martin, Logistics and Inventory Manager

Ben Martin is the Logistics and Inventory Manager for Spaceflight. He started working in logistics for commercial space in 2013, working for SpaceX. Now he makes sure our customers’ spacecraft get from Point A to Point B – safely and on time. Don’t miss our next post in our series on logistics, where we’ll be discussing special concerns around shipping hazardous materials (a factor in shipping spacecraft with batteries or propulsion systems).

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