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Poop, pop threaten Air Force rocket program, investigators say

January 7, 2018 Updated: January 12, 2018 at 10:10 am
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Aerojet Rocketdyne test area

Pentagon investigators have found that Air Force rocket programs have a poopy problem with messy factories and sloppy procedures that could endanger military launches.

The new report found "animal feces" in an Aerojet Rocketdyne test area for rocket motors used aboard the military's Atlas and Delta Rockets. At rocket upstart SpaceX, investigators found bottles of soda and personal items in a rocket-testing area that was supposed to be kept clear of debris. At United Launch Alliance, investigators found workers didn't follow procedures to prevent electrostatic issues, leaving rocket parts vulnerable to damage,

The 26-page report, which found 181 distinct quality control issues, slammed the Air Force Space Command's rocket-buying program, saying leaders "did not perform adequate quality assurance." The command is based at Peterson Air Force Base.

The Defense Contract Management Agency, which oversees military contractors, said it "issued corrective action requests to each contractor. Each contractor submitted corresponding corrective action plans and they are well underway in implementing those corrective actions."

Air Force Space Command's top rocket man, Col Robert P. Bongiovi, director of launch systems, praised the report.

"Our priority is mission success on every launch and we appreciate the DoD IG's diligence in ensuring our provider's quality systems and processes are tuned to ensure continued launch success," he said.

But John Pike, who runs the Virginia-based think tank Global Security.org, said the problems found in the report, including the poop, point to bigger issues.

Two decades of successful launches, Pike said, might have bred complacency in the Air Force's rocket enterprise that could lead to failures.

"If it seems to be working they aren't going to go looking for problems," he said.

In the late 1990s, the Air Force suffered a string of spectacular launch failures - six in nine months. The service was ordered by Congress to investigate the problems, and the service found a series of issues, many based on faulty quality control procedures by contractors.

This time, the Pentagon has ordered a "root cause analysis" to figure out why pop cans and poop were allowed in the same room as rocket engines.

The report found more than pop and poop problems.

Investigators delved into whether contractors complied with a set of rules with a title only the Pentagon could love: Aerospace Standard 9100C.

That set of regulations controls everything from product testing and materials safety to control of debris and keeping track of expiration dates on equipment.

In one example, the investigators found expired glue at a rocket plant run by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

At SpaceX, investigators say they spotted workers using tools that weren't specified in a manual.

At United Launch Alliance, investigators say workers weren't taking precautions to avoid static electricity and to control humidity around rocket parts.

Of the 181 issues found, 64 were tied to United Launch Alliance, 75 to SpaceX and 42 to Aerojet Rocketdyne. In all, 68 of the issues were deemed "major."

Any issue could cost the Air Force big bucks. With a rocket launch running around $400 million and some military satellites topping $1 billion, any failure could take a bite out of the Pentagon's $8 billion in annual space spending.

The military has promised to determine how the problems arose within 90 days.

Pike said the solution to the issue is simple: Make sure airmen and contractors don't slack off when it comes to quality standards.

Space flight, he said, is a business with little room for mistakes.

"There's a reason they call it rocket science," Pike said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

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