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A trip into space

Two men, one giant project: Denis Mitschke (white shirt) and Andreas Kreis – shown here exploring “ancient” technology in the “walkable space” at the Dornier Museum in Friedrichshafen – were among the driving forces in the development of the new life-support system for the International Space Station (ISS). Photos: Bernhard Huber

The container that is transported from Lake Constance to Frankfurt in a temperature-controlled truck, from there flown to Tokyo in a freighter and then on to its final destination in another truck over the course of five days in the spring of 2018, looks quite inconspicuous. But there is much more to this transport run coordinated by DB Schenker as the freight forwarder in charge than meets the eye: the container is loaded with a highly sensitive system intended for use on the International Space Station (ISS). Thanks to this equipment, the chances of mounting manned missions to far-away planets such as Mars in the not-too-distant future, could be boosted significantly.


Six months later, the sophisticated system worth an amount in the two-digit million euros launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan. In the ISS, Alexander Gerst took care of the assembly – until December 2018 the German was the commander of the “Crew Expedition 57,” which was part of the current European Space Agency (ESA) mission “Horizons.” Since the beginning of this year, the system has been undergoing tests that will extend over the whole year.


“To me, space travel is a dream I’m trying to make come true,” says Denis Mitschke. “That’s why it was so great to see the truck carrying the equipment arrive at the Space Center as planned.” Mitschke works on behalf of Airbus in the German town of Immenstaad on Lake Constance. Until the handover to Japan’s Space Agency JAXA, he was responsible for all assembly, integration and test activities for the  Advanced Closed-Loop System – ACLS for short.


So what is the story with this precious cargo? “The ACLS is a new type of life-support system for astronauts,” explains the aerospace engineer. „It is a complex facility built into a compact rack with three tasks: 1. splitting water (H2O) into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) and providing O2 to the astronauts; 2. removing the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by the crew; 3. producing water by combining CO2 and H2 from the other two processes in a reaction that produces methane (CH4) as a by-product.” This technology makes it possible for about 40 percent of the fresh water required for the electrolysis process to be produced. Once it is in continuous operation, this will translate into up to 440 kilograms of water per year that do not have to be transported from Earth to the ISS.


Airbus was commissioned by ESA in 2011. “But the development of individual components began more than 20 years ago,” says Andreas Kreis. Among other things, the mechanical engineer was responsible for the “Engineering Model,” a twin of the ACLS “flight model,” which can reproduce the processes in space back here on Earth. Over the years, a total of around 150 colleagues have worked on the system at Airbus, and they included chemists and physicists.

Environmentally controlled storage, swift shipment: DB Schenker transported the system from Lake Constance to Frankfurt as well as from Tokyo to Tanegashima Space Station. Photo: Christian Schmid

Compact rack, handled by a true space traveler: Alexander Gerst assembled the life-support system aboard the ISS. Photo: NASA/ESA

The ACLS complements two life-support systems that have been installed in the space station for years. Designed to provide life support for three astronauts, the new system is intended to remain on the ISS once testing is completed – provided it passes the tests. “This would in theory allow the crew to be increased from the current six to eight or nine members.”


However, the main goal is to pursue the further development towards a completely closed system. “The aim is to no longer dispose of the methane generated when producing water by releasing it into space, but to instead split it into carbon and hydrogen and then use the carbon as fertilizer,” explains Denis Mitschke. This would allow plants to be cultivated inside the space station that would help feed the crew. This in turn would mean that the astronauts would become self-sufficient and thus be ready for journeys to Mars, or for longer stays on the moon. The expert’s cautious estimate: “It could be ready for deployment by 2030.”


A much shorter time span was of course needed for transportation of the ACLS by DB Schenker and Lufthansa Cargo, the airfreight carrier involved in the operation. “The shipment had to arrive at the Space Center right on the day it was scheduled because extensive preparations still needed to be carried out by the experts on site prior to the launch into space,” says Andreas Kreis, who was also responsible for logistics on behalf of Airbus.

From Lake Constance all the way into space: after transportation involving trucks and planes, the life-support system was integrated into a spacecraft at the Tanegashima Space Center. This spacecraft was then launched into space on board an H-IIB booster rocket and docked with the ISS about 400 kilometers above the Earth. Photos: Airbus / JAXA / Lufthansa Cargo / NASA

In the months leading up to the journey, the people in charge at Airbus and their transport partners prepared a catalog of protective measures. “We installed thermal insulation inside the container and then ventilated it using purified, dry air for eight hours,” says Kreis. All the way from Lake Constance to Japan, the cargo was kept at temperatures between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius. “This is why we used temperature-controlled trucks on the route through Germany and then again from Tokyo to the Space Center,” says Wolfgang Pemsl, Head of Airfreight at DB Schenker in Friedrichshafen.


The negative pressure prevailing during the flight on the freight plane’s main deck was compensated by means of valves – once analyses had shown that the air in the cargo compartment met the purity criteria. In order to dampen the shocks, the rack holding the system inside the container rested on four springs. “During transportation, data was recorded, such as the G force impacting on the system and showing what vibrations it was exposed to,” explains Denis Mitschke. “The value determined was far below the maximum we had previously defined.”


“Both DB Schenker and Lufthansa Cargo have experienced teams, and they offered us end-to-end service. The transportation went very smoothly,” says Mitschke. Yet it is only when he describes the moment when the launch vehicle lifted off that he gets really excited: “To feel the power that is generated during a launch is an extraordinary experience!”

Three questions for ...

Wolfgang Pemsl, Head of Airfreight 

DB Schenker, Friedrichshafen

Which sections of the entire transport were handled by DB Schenker?

Our role was to ensure that the special container containing the system equipment was made safe for transportation by air at Airbus in Friedrichshafen before we loaded it into an environmentally controlled truck and drove it to Frankfurt Airport. There the colleagues from Lufthansa Cargo took over. Transportation from Tokyo Narita was our job again: we had a truck with two drivers travel the 1,400 kilometers to Kagoshima in the country’s south, take a ferry to the island of Tanegashima, and then drive the last 50 kilometers to the Space Center.


How much preparation went into this project?

The first discussions took place at the end of 2016. From then on we continually kept in contact and exchanged ideas, also with Lufthansa Cargo, and so developed the whole thing together. In the end, every step was planned down to the last detail. We have been working for Airbus for a long time already, but we had never handled such an unusual job for this customer before. Space travel is a topic that excites everyone!


Did you know right from the start what precious cargo you were being asked to handle?

We did of course know right from the beginning that this transportation was extremely important, yes. But just how valuable it really is we only realized during the discussions, as we were told more about what the cargo was. We were therefore all the more happy and relieved when Airbus gave us the news that everything had gone well and on time.

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