The makers of America's rockets and satellites "are still stumbling on fundamentals too often," said Gary Payton, former astronaut and the top Air Force man on space acquisition. Payton's comments seem to indicate a continuing trend of shoddy quality control among those whose toughest job is turning out top quality parts and software and making sure they work and fit well.
The biggest problem lies with suppliers, who are selling equipment that is just not up to snuff, Payton said. However, the primes also must shoulder blame since they are not overseeing suppliers at the factory level as closely as they must. Payton spoke to reporters at a Thursday lunch organized by the Space Foundation.
"We have been finding problems on satellites and launch vehicles; valves on launch vehicles, gyroscopes and reaction wheels on satellites," Payton said. "We have been finding test execution problems." The problems are not as severe they were five years ago during the peak of the period when most honest people declared space acquisition broken, when almost every space program suffered Nunn-McCurdy breaches and serious technical challenges. But Payton made clear there are still significant problems.
Payton is the second senior acquisition official to worry publicly about quality control this week. The Missile Defense Agency is struggling with lousy quality control among its contractors, its executive director said the agency's budget rollout. David Altwegg, a highly respected missileer and engineer, told reporters that he and his colleagues stood watching a recent THAAD test. A drogue parachute pulled the target out of a C-17. “We all stood there and watched it fall into the water,” said an obviously disgusted Altweg. A failure review board was convened and found the test failed due to “a quality control problem.”
The Air Force is trying to tackle this. Space and Missile Systems Command, the Air Force's rocket and satellite honchos, is hiring 900 people over the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) to beef up the ranks of testers, acquisition specialists, cost estimating experts (of whom there are very few) and systems engineers, Payton said, to help catch these problems early in a program.
"I am constantly frustrated by assembly integration and test that takes so long," he said, adding that this is partly occurring because of beefed up testing and quality control checks. "We are discovering the problems before launch..."
The other thing that the Air Force has done to improve performance is to switch from award fee contracts to incentive fees, which "force the program manager to decide what is more important to you, to deliver on cost, on schedule or on very high performance. And I always add a clause on on-orbit performance. I don't want to launch an ice cube."
For some perspective on this, remember that the U.S. Air Force has an excellent record of putting dozens of satellites safely into space after a string of launch disasters in the late 1990s. This string of successes came after five major failures, including three heavy Titan IV rockets, losing Air Force and NRO payloads totaling over $3 billion.
But glitches remain. Ongoing problems with Orbital's Minotaur 4 rocket will delay by 14 months the launch of the Air Force’s Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite And the SBIRS missile detection satellite program has been dogged by persistent hardware and software problems for almost two years -- after years of cost overruns and delays. They still have not been solved, Payton said yesterday.
And, of course, the U.S. was forced to shoot down US 193 the classified, reconnaissance satellite built by Lockheed Martin, in early 2008. No one outside the classified world knows what caused that satellite to fail, but it never worked. And in one of the more spectacular quality control lapses, Lockheed Martin workers dropped and damaged a NOAA satellite in September 2003. Perhaps with the 900 new people at SMC and the switch to incentive fee contracts will nip these problems in the bud over the next three to five years.