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Pentagon Watchdog Cites Top U.S. Space Contractors for Quality-Control Lapses

  • Audit found debris on plant floor, including animal feces
  • Watchdog discloses no instances where launches were endangered

The Pentagon’s Inspector General cited key contractors in the military’s primary space launch program, including billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc., for a range of quality-control lapses which it said could result in increased costs or delays to launches.

SpaceX, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and United Launch Alliance LLC -- a partnership between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. -- were cited for 181 “nonconformities” to aerospace industry standards, according to an audit published Friday. Of those, 68 were considered major lapses, the rest minor.

“We found that ULA, SpaceX, and AR did not perform adequate quality assurance management,” according to the audit by Randolph Stone, the Pentagon’s deputy inspector general for policy and oversight. “ULA’s, SpaceX’s, and AR’s inadequate quality assurance management could increase program costs, delay launch schedules, and increase the risk of mission failure.”

The audit, though, didn’t cite instances where the specific launch of a military satellite was jeopardized.

Stone supervised a comparable audit released in 2013 about the F-35 jet program that reached similar findings about Lockheed Martin’s adherence to quality standards.

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Among the issues cited by the Pentagon’s watchdog in the latest report was the presence of foreign objects, including strewn nuts, bolts and animal feces, at a Aerojet Rocketdyne engine test site in Florida. The company is ULA’s major subcontractor for engines. Musk’s SpaceX is a new competitor for ULA in launches.

The audit included evaluations of the manufacturing facility for ULA’s Delta IV and Atlas V rockets in Decatur, Alabama, as well as its engineering and program management facility in Denver. It reviewed the SpaceX Falcon 9 manufacturing in Hawthorne, California, and its booster and engine testing at McGregor, Texas. The inspector also visited Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RL-10 engine manufacturing and test site in West Palm Beach, Florida.

ULA was found have 21 major and 43 minor quality violations; SpaceX had 33 major and 42 minor violations; and Aerojet Rocketdyne was cited for 14 major and 28 minor non-conformities.

‘Room for Improvement’

John Taylor, a spokesman for SpaceX, said in an emailed statement that “though we have passed all of our” quality audits to date and “recently completed the transition audit to the next, even more stringent revision of the standard” reviewed by the inspector general, “there is always room for improvement.”

SpaceX has partnered with its customer to address each finding, submitted plans to correct items identified for approval, and implemented and closed nearly half, Taylor added.

Steven Warren, spokesman for Aerojet Rocketdyne, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Jessica Rye, a spokeswoman for ULA, directed questions on the audit to the Pentagon.

An Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center official cited in the report but whose name was redacted said quality control surveillance “has been refined” at ULA and Aerojet, while implementing corrective actions recommended by the IG will “shape the quality surveillance at SpaceX.”

Soda Bottles

At ULA, the audit “found nonconformities related to Electrostatic Sensitive Device protection” designed to protect electronic components in the avionics production area such as ungrounded workstations, untested wrist straps, missing ESD protective covers, non-ESD-approved containers and materials, and uncontrolled humidity levels.

Those shortfalls “could result in the premature failure of electronic components,” the audit said.

At SpaceX, the inspector general “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. Furthermore, we found bottles of soda and personal items” in controlled areas designed to minimize foreign objects that could be sucked into the engine.

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