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Cuts Could Hurt Technical Performance in Space

The unfortunate reality of cuts to space programs and the loss of workers in the field is a heightened risk for technical malfunctions and even catastrophic failures.

The phenomenon has been exhibited in the past when senior engineers and managers left their posts and anomalies ensued thereafter. Indeed, the latest round of U.S. federal cuts is raising quality control concerns.

It is uncertain whether the sequester and other federal reductions in spending on civilian and military space programs will lead to disasters, but history indicates that a dearth of opportunities to keep technical skills honed offers reason for worry. At the very least, U.S. government budget cuts may disrupt the supply chain and production lines by reducing spending on new spacecraft, ground equipment and satellite systems.

“In keeping with the Willie Sutton school of management, companies will put their efforts where the money is,” William Schuster, former chief operating officer for GeoEye Inc., recently explained. “If there is a cutback in satellite funding, then companies’ investment in this area will be curtailed. Further, the fewer satellites that get built, the more expensive each new one will be because there are certain fixed costs that need to be covered. It should also be pointed out that fewer satellites and rockets, as we’ve experienced over the past decade, results in problems with the supply chain.”

In 2007-2008, quality control problems occurred when funding cuts affected a number of space programs, recalled Schuster, who started consulting after the Jan. 31 merger of GeoEye with Digital Globe following U.S. government spending cuts for remote sensing services. Aside from Schuster’s private-sector experience, he spent nearly 22 years working with the CIA and helped the National Reconnaissance Office in the development, engineering and operations of advanced reconnaissance and surveillance systems. 

Quality control problems can stem from flawed parts or the loss of experienced manufacturing and engineering workers, and result in reduced reliability of satellite systems and launch vehicles.

The cuts affect virtually all segments of the supply chain, from parts suppliers to the plating shops and others who support them. Also affected by the federal funding squeeze are subsystem developers and system integrators.

When steady funding exists, there is a constant flow of parts, subsystems and space systems that allow technical bugs to be worked out and experience to be gained by the operators. At such times, the management teams at space companies can justify investing to improve the quality of satellites, launch vehicles and the parts that they use.

In the absence of such a consistent work flow, intermittent production occurs. Such irregular production can result in teams either forgetting what they have done previously or losing seasoned workers who may be replaced by greenhorns. The loss of experienced employees also can be accompanied by reduced competency.

Successful business practices might erode amid the cuts and upheaval. A supply chain that once was dependable when sufficient work flow existed can be disrupted with disastrous results.

Thus, integrators need to increase their vigilance of suppliers and parts or risk ending up with defective components in the systems that they are building. 

One example is that the use of tin in electronic components, which is commonplace on the ground, must be avoided for space applications. Tin is much less expensive than silver, but the latter material is best suited for the hazards of operating in orbit.

When suppliers maintain a constant production line of products for space, tin readily can be avoided without problem. But risk rises if production lines turn out products for space applications intermittently or just as a small percentage of what they do, rather than using dedicated production lines for space components.

Integrators consequently need to test incoming components more frequently and thoroughly, since they cannot simply rely on their specification and certification from the supplier.

Along with quality control concerns, government cuts to civil and military space programs leave the industry less appealing to the best and brightest job seekers.

A prominent space industry consultant and educator who is voicing concern about the government’s funding cuts is Marshall Kaplan, a visiting professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland. The sequester and direct government cuts to civil space could contribute to “more failures” in general, he warned.

The end of a government-funded manned space program and the U.S. space shuttle are high-profile examples of why low morale and waning excitement seem to be taking root in the industry, Kaplan cautioned. As senior engineers and industry leaders retire, an experience gap occurs, and the brain drain is complicated by the loss of other talented people who pursue new opportunities and leave their less-capable counterparts susceptible to quality control problems, he said. 

“The government has done a poor job of sustaining funding and maintaining continuity for civil space and military space,” Kaplan said.

If government and industry officials do not learn from the lessons of the past, they are vulnerable to creating conditions that can have calamitous consequences.

 

Paul Dykewicz is a seasoned journalist who has covered the development of satellite television, satellite radio, satellite broadband, hosted payloads and space situational awareness.

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