Military launch quality issues flagged by DoD watchdog

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IG report: United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, and ULA subcontractor Aerojet Rocketdyne “did not perform adequate quality assurance management of the EELV program."

Updated Dec. 28 with Aerojet Rocketdyne statement

WASHINGTON — An evaluation of military space launch services revealed lapses in quality control that could compromise the schedule and performance of future missions, the Defense Department inspector general reported last week.

The IG specifically called out the main contractors that support the evolved expendable launch vehicle program, or EELV, for failing to comply with standards required by AS9100 — a widely adopted quality management system for the aviation and space industries.

Prime contractors United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX, and ULA subcontractor Aerojet Rocketdyne “did not perform adequate quality assurance management of the EELV program,” said the Dec. 20 report signed by Randolph Stone, deputy inspector general for policy and oversight.

Auditors flagged the contractors for 181 “nonconformities” in the Aerospace Standard 9100C, known as “Quality Management Systems — Requirements for Aviation, Space, and Defense Organizations.”

The IG report listed a number of lapses that inspectors believe could put at risk billions of dollars worth of satellite launches that the EELV program is responsible for. It called on the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, and the Defense Contract Management Agency to dig deeper into these issues.

Gaps in quality assurance management, the IG cautioned, “could increase program costs, delay launch schedules, and increase the risk of mission failure.”

Three launch vehicles made by ULA and SpaceX support the EELV program. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center acquires launch services for U.S. military and intelligence spacecraft from both firms. Aerojet Rocketdyne provides ULA the RL-10 engine for the Delta IV and Atlas V vehicles. The EELV program office delegates day-to-day management of vendor agreements to the Defense Contract Management Agency.

IG audits took place from June 2016 through March 2017 at ULA Delta IV and Atlas V manufacturing facilities in Decatur, Alabama; at ULA program management sites in Denver, Colorado; at the SpaceX Falcon 9 manufacturing plant in Hawthorne, California, at Falcon 9 booster and engine testing in McGregor, Texas; and at Aerojet’s RL-10 engine manufacturing and test operations in West Palm Beach, Florida.

One issue identified at ULA was related to the protection of electrostatic sensitive devices in the avionics production area. “Inadequate ESD controls and mitigation could result in the premature failure of electronic components in the EELV system,” the report said.

At SpaceX, inspectors found an “inadequately protected” Merlin engine on the test stand. The Merlin engine exhaust ports and vent tubes “should have been protected with specific covers,” they wrote. “We found bottles of soda and personal items in FOD-controlled areas.” FOD is short for foreign object debris.

The RL-10 engine test stand at Aerojet, used to test both the Delta IV and Atlas V second stage engine, had “significant FOD issues,” the report said, including “loose bolts, nuts, tape, foil, tie wraps, and animal feces.”

In the aerospace industry, FOD costs billions of dollars in the form of schedule delays, rework, injuries, and product losses. “A bit of debris lodged in the right place could be enough to drop a rocket right out of the sky,” warned an FOD prevention guide published by Lockheed Martin. “Delivering products that are not FOD-free sends the message that you do not have control over your manufacturing processes,” the guidelines said.

The IG suggested the EELV program office and the DCMA conduct a “root cause analysis and implement corrective actions” for the 181 violations that inspectors identified. Air Force and Defense Department officials said they agreed with some of the IG findings but noted that many of the issues cited by auditors already were being addressed and fixed by the contractors.

The Air Force program office and DCMA informed the IG that they are “actively engaged with the EELV contractors as they conduct root cause analyses and develop corrective plans.” They noted that Aerojet has “implemented corrective actions for all nonconformities, ULA has implemented corrective actions for all nonconformities except one, and SpaceX is in the process of implementing corrective actions.”

DCMA and Air Force program officials also told the IG that they have stepped up quality surveillance of ULA and Aerojet Rocketdyne. And they noted that “quality surveillance of SpaceX has been implemented for SpaceX’s first EELV mission and will be further refined as a result of the DoD OIG inspection.”

In a statement to SpaceNews, Aerojet Rocketdyne Vice President and Chief Communication officer Steve Warren said the company “welcomes the rigorous DoD IG inspection and takes the findings very seriously, which is why we have worked with our customers to immediately resolve them.”

Aerojet has maintained a “government (AS9100) compliant quality management system at our West Palm Beach facility for decades,” Warren said. “We will continue to work with ULA and the Department of Defense to ensure our nation has reliable access to space. The RL10, with more than 480 successful launches, has powered the nation’s most critical launches for the past 50 years.”