Starlink stack
A stack of Starlink satellites being prepared for launch. A five percent failure rate for the first set of 60 satellites has heightened concerns that megaconstellations could leave hundreds of dead satellites in long-lived orbits. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — While space companies are feeling the impacts of supply chain disruptions, traditional space companies are experiencing different effects than newer ones.

Panelists during a session of the ASCEND conference by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Nov. 10 said that the shocks to the global supply chain caused by the pandemic highlighted existing weaknesses in traditional space industry supply chains.

“Relative to other industries, there’s a massive underinvestment in the supply chain. That is part of the reason why we are having so many challenges,” said Paul Graven, chief executive of Cateni, a company that develops avionics and software for the aerospace industry. “The supply chain in space often behaves as though it’s surprised by orders. In no other industry does that really happen.”

“COVID exacerbated some of the existing problems,” he said, such as the underinvestment in the supply chain. “It created a situation where, when you have these supply chain shocks, they hit even harder.”

That underinvestment, he argued, was part of an industry effort to optimize supply chains, but by doing so, reduced the resilience extra capacity provides. “When you optimize, you make it brittle,” he said.

That is a different situation than companies that are developing large numbers of spacecraft, such as for constellations. “Their supply chain problem is a lot different than DOD space or even big commercial satellites,” Graven said, because of the much higher volumes of components they use. “They have maybe some early startup challenges because, when they get started, the supply chain doesn’t know what they need.”

Over time, though, suppliers will adapt and be able to provide the quantities of components they need on a regular basis, versus the intermittent orders from traditional space projects, he concluded. They still face the broader supply chain issues, particularly for semiconductors, that automotive and consumer electronics manufacturers are experiencing.

“When I’ve been doing supply chain stuff in the space area, I set those guys aside,” he said of satellite constellation manufacturers. “They have real problems, but their problems are much like large-scale manufacturing, like automotive.”

The growth of constellations can affect the traditional space supply chain in other ways. One example is in the use of radiation-hardened electronics. Low Earth orbit constellation developers are eschewing the use of such electronics, said Carie Mullins, analytic lead at BryceTech, because their satellites operate in lower orbits and have shorter lifetimes. “It really is going to change the supply chain,” she said.

The supply of rad-hardened electronics, though, needs to be maintained for many government missions that require that level of performance, said Bradley Reed, a consultant for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command. “NewSpace is opening up an industrial base that I don’t think we need to maintain at this point in time because it is self-regulating,” he said. “The U.S. government still needs to maintain a program of developing radiation-hardened electronics and that industrial base in order to meet architecture goals.”

He suggested problems with the space industry supply chain be taken up by the National Space Council, which will hold its first meeting under the Biden administration Dec. 1. “You’d think that the executive branch would seek solutions,” he said. “It may be a timely topic for discussion.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...