Component Problems Still Hampering U.S. Space Programs

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WASHINGTON — Problems with electronic parts continue to plague U.S. Defense Department and NASA space programs due in part to acquisition reforms instituted in the late 1990s that reduced the government’s level of contract oversight, Congress’ investigative arm said July 22.

The Defense Department and NASA agreed that more information sharing is essential to rooting out these quality control problems, and the Pentagon has proposed an annual report to ensure “planned, deliberate and consistent assessments” of spacecraft components, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report.

The report was based on a 19-month study of 21 Air Force, Navy, Missile Defense Agency and NASA programs that was completed in May. Parts quality problems were widespread and affected all 21 programs, the GAO said in its report, “Space and Missile Defense Acquisitions — Periodic Assessment Needed To Correct Parts Quality Problems in Major Programs.” Of these problems, 64.7 percent were associated with electronics, 20.6 percent with materials and 14.7 percent with mechanical parts.

The space program that suffered the most costly parts problems was the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) secure communications system, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif. A power regulating unit on the first AEHF satellite failed during system-level thermal vacuum testing and had to be replaced. This and other problems required “extensive rework” and necessitated an additional round of thermal vacuum testing, delaying the satellite’s launch for two years, to August 2010, and added $250 million to the program’s cost, the report said.

Furthermore, once the satellite was launched, its liquid apogee engine designed to carry it from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit failed as a result of a piece of cloth that was not removed from a fuel line. Though this issue was not within the scope of the GAO’s report, it likely occurred due to quality control issues similar to others that affected the program, the report said.

Other programs that were significantly impacted by parts problems included the now-defunct National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which was delayed 27 months by parts problems that cost $105.2 million to correct; NASA’s Glory research satellite, which was delayed 20 months by parts problems that cost $72.2 million to correct; and NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, which was delayed 26 months by parts problems that cost $10.5 million to correct. These figures do not reflect the total increase to program costs that resulted from the delays, the report said. The Air Force did not report the cost or schedule delays associated with parts problems on its Space Based Infrared System for missile warning, and the Navy did not report the cost associated with an 18-month delay to its Mobile User Objective System form mobile communications that resulted from similar issues.

The GAO identified several factors that have contributed to spacecraft parts problems, perhaps the most significant among them being a Defense Department acquisition reform effort dubbed Total System Performance Requirements and a NASA strategy informally known as “faster, better, cheaper.”

For three decades, military space systems had been built to a military standard known as MIL-Q-9858. This standard required contractors to establish a “quality program with documented procedures and processes that are subject to approval of government representatives,” the report said. In the 1990s, concerns about cost gave rise to a new acquisition approach that adhered less to a rigid acquisition process and shifted key decision-making authorities to contractors.

“This period, however, was marked by continued problematic acquisitions that ultimately resulted in sharp increases in cost, schedule, and quality problems,” the GAO said.

NASA attempted to reduce its mission costs by pursuing smaller spacecraft developed on shorter timelines. While this approach had many successes, the failure of two Mars probes “revealed limits to this approach in terms of NASA’s ability to learn from past mistakes,” the report said. While both NASA and the Pentagon have returned to higher levels of government oversight and, in some cases, increased stability of requirements, it is too early to know whether these efforts will alleviate spacecraft parts problems, the GAO said.

The GAO recommended that NASA and the Defense Department institute a mechanism for periodic government-wide assessments of parts quality issues in space and missile defense programs. The assessment should include the frequency at which these issues are occurring in relation to previous years and rate the effectiveness of corrective measures, the report said.

The Defense Department, in its response to the GAO, said it would work with NASA to determine the most appropriate reporting mechanism, and proposed an annual report on parts, materials and processes, which the GAO supported. NASA agreed with the GAO’s recommendations and said increased inter-agency “communication, coordination and sharing of parts quality information will help mitigate threats pose[d] by defective and nonconforming parts.”