Not Another Delayed Space Mission

Erin Beaudoin

Tech & Science Writer

March 5, 2024

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Space missions of all sizes are hampered by one persistent word: delay. In 2022, delays actually increased as the year went on. A majority of delays during that wrap-up to 2022 were caused by technical failures associated with software issues, limited testing, or battery problems. And apologies, the 2023 stats are not out on delays yet (if you find some let us know). Several things contribute to the space industry’s chronic tardiness: poor interdepartmental communication, supply chain delays, lack of organization, underestimated lead times, risk management, permits, and launch delays that lead to more launch delays.

As space companies scale and build increasingly more complex systems like space garbage trucksasteroid mining ships, and gas stations in space, they must advance their development and manufacturing techniques. Space engineering is hard, but it doesn’t have to be that hard. Sure, there are some reasons for delays outside of internal control like weather or bottlenecks at launch providers or subcomponent supply chains. But, by implementing good practices to reduce iterations and better estimating supply chain lead times, companies can get more accurate timelines and budgets.

Shouldn’t we be better at this by now?

The space industry is relatively new and still trying to find its legs, but time will not magically solve this problem. NASA has been manufacturing spacecraft longer than any private industry player and NASA still underestimates the timeline and budget of almost every mission they design. 


To be fair, the Artemis delay can’t be blamed completely on NASA. Industry partners had their own developmental delays including SpaceX human landing systems and Axiom’s space suits. SpaceX also ran into some regulatory issues after Starship’s two stages failed to separate in a test flight. Now they must comply with the FAA’s 63 corrective actions that arose from a 2023 investigation and acknowledge the concerns of environmental groups worried about Starship’s damage to the surrounding ecosystem. Still, why hasn’t NASA gotten better at estimating timelines and budgets by now? Mainly bureaucracy. In the words of an AFWERX fellow I spoke to recently, “The two things the government hates are the way things are now, and change.”

At least, NewSpace companies should lead the way

NewSpace companies don’t have the same excuse. They often have the opposite mindset when it comes to implementing change, focusing on agile processes and the reuse of design baselines to get to market faster. Yet across all facets of the industry, there is rampant timeline mismanagement and under-budgeted projects. The endless kinks and crawls of a quickly scaling team can lead to even simple tasks inciting a tangle of mismatched documents, hours of frustration, and several reiterations. However, implementing tools and practices to reduce delays is a lot easier at a space startup than at NASA. Do it early on, before things get out of control.

Let’s focus on what we can control

Let’s take a closer look at some of the controllable reasons for delays and how companies can begin to solve them:

Lack of cross-department communication

Design engineers fail to effectively communicate with manufacturing engineers to assess manufacturability, which causes products to be “sent back to the drawing board” late in the manufacturing process. More design iterations than necessary wastes time and money.

Solution: A platform for cross-department communication at all stages of the product lifecycle. Engineering and manufacturing teams will be able to collaborate more easily if, for example, an engineer can submit new design revisions through a Change Order process in which all relevant departments can participate in review and approval. 

Version control and lack of data centralization

Unauthorized team members can make untracked changes to offline documents that could fumble the manufacturing process. As a result, engineers or manufacturers may need to go back to a previous iteration of the project, but aren’t always able to find the right document. Alternatively, when individuals work from different versions, there’s no single source of trust. Engineers may end up repeating work or missing important things when combining information manually.

Solution: Locked cloud-based documents with traceable edits will give engineers a “single-source of truth” to work from.  A platform that integrates with other manufacturing applications and CAD tools is ideal to ensure an uninterrupted Digital Thread.

Leadtime guesswork

Customers might ask a salespeople about lead times. However, they might not have time to gather information from different departments or determine workload. So instead, they just throw a number out that seems reasonable. Ideally, this would be a number that the customer will remember and base their mission timelines on. If salesperson mentions a lead time that is not enough, and the manufacturing team faces a crunch on testing and evaluation time, the result is a higher-risk mission.

Solution: The entire product lifecycle is laid out on a single cloud-native PLM platform. The sales team has access to design and development dates and updates to make lead time estimates simple and accurate. The platform offers complete traceability of product information from supplier-sourced components across e-catalogs to final released products. 

Monitor external factors closely

Even external reasons for delays can be monitored to better estimate the timeline and budget of a manufacturing project.

Supply chain delays

A subcomponent needed for the product could take 6 months to arrive rather than the usual 3 months, delaying the assembly and testing processes on the larger mission. Engineers may not always have access to information about lead time at the time of design and external factors, like the pandemic or factory issues, can cause unpredictable shipping delays.

Solution: A platform that enables viewing component lead times at the design phase, early in the development of the product to help estimate product lead time as well as present acceptable component alternates when available.

Regulatory approvals get held up

Government regulations, permitting, and licensing takes a long time on the government’s side

Solution: With an overview of the entire manufacturing process, information for those applications can be gathered and sent out as soon as possible to get the necessary registration and licensing. Additionally, complete traceability of product information will enable users to make corrections, as well as restore previous versions. As a result, companies can satisfy internal engineering processes and federal regulatory requirements, such as ITAR.

Launch delays

Even with the best planning and documentation, there can be challenges right up until launch. For example, the weather might impact the launch.  Additionally, launch vehicles or other delayed payloads might have mechanical problems upon being pushed to the front of the line for launch.

Solution: Honestly, there’s not much to do about this unless you are the launch provider, in which case, see the solutions above.

Modern Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software solutions capture all of these solutions.

The modern PLM

Space Companies can estimate lead times and budgets with confidence by looking at the whole picture. That means including all relevant departments on one platform from the design stage and making it easy to share information and track progress. If used correctly, modern PLMs can decrease miscommunication and rework, in turn decreasing lead times and costs. Relevant departments can include engineers, supply chain managers, operations managers, quality managers, and manufacturers. Viewing subcomponent specifications and lead time tracking will make timelines and budgets easier to estimate. 

Overly simple methods like tracking details in spreadsheets are difficult to maintain and error prone. On the flip-side, cumbersome premises-based PLM platforms can be complex to use, making rapid innovation and planning near-impossible. 

Weighing the cost

Modern PLMs at a glance can seem like an unnecessary expense. Or, they are too laborious to integrate into your existing tech stack. However, investing time and money into a PLM will, at worst, save money. At best, it will save a company from going under. Space Companies have burned through funding, lost deals, or even been sued because of delays. The cost of delays is too high for space start-ups, especially in the early days of space heritage.

Final considerations for getting it right:

  • Pick a PLM platform that’s easy to use and encourage adoption.
  • Ensure teams onboard into the PLM platform and understand how to use it properly.
  • Use integrations with the PLM that synchronize data between applications to make sure each team is on the same page.
  • Good software won’t fix bad processes or communications. Therefore, ensure you set a culture of collaboration and documentation early on.

Summary

The space industry is evolving and manufacturing techniques need to evolve with it. To push past initial investment stages and survive on their own, space industry players must implement scalable PLM strategies. This prevents internal delays and stay updated on external delays. There will always be reasons for delays that are outside of control, but delays are expected to decrease overall in the next decade. Don’t get left behind on Earth!

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