OIG: NASA's Parts Quality Control Process

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Full report


To achieve its mission of advancing science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration, NASA builds and operates launch vehicles, propulsion systems, robots, satellites, telescopes, and other complex science instruments. Generally, these devices operate in space where temperature and radiation are significantly harsher than on Earth and malfunctions cannot be easily repaired. Accordingly, the parts the Agency uses to build these instruments and hardware have high performance and quality requirements, and procuring such parts is essential to NASA's mission success.

Although mission failures are relatively infrequent, in the past 10 years NASA has incurred financial losses of approximately $1.3 billion when parts that did not meet performance expectations or quality standards caused missions and instruments to fail. In addition to the financial impact, these failures deprived NASA and other users of valuable scientific data. In the face of pressure to take advantage of state-of-the-art technology, faster delivery, and lower costs, NASA's move toward acquiring more commercially produced "off-the-shelf" products could introduce increased risks and additional unknowns into the Agency's parts quality control processes.

In this audit, we evaluated the Agency's parts and supplier quality control processes, parts and supplier data collection and sharing practices, and processes for overseeing contractor quality management systems. We spoke with relevant Agency, Government, and industry officials; evaluated policies and procedures; interviewed personnel from several major projects; and obtained relevant documentation.


Although NASA has a number of initiatives in place to help ensure the selection of quality parts from reliable suppliers, Centers generally manage their parts quality and supplier assessment data unilaterally rather than collaborating through a comprehensive, integrated, Agency-wide parts and supplier information system. Specifically, the Agency does not maintain a centralized parts quality history database or facilitate the integration of individual Center systems, track all relevant supplier performance history, or enforce requirements that Centers participate in Agency parts quality management systems. Without these control mechanisms, it is more difficult for NASA to mitigate the risk of nonconforming parts entering its project hardware supply chain. As NASA continues to rely more on commercial parts rather than parts that are custom built or built to military specifications, it is even more important that comprehensive control mechanisms are in place. Moreover, the lack of a coordinated approach may lead to higher costs and schedule delays if faulty parts are acquired and additional testing, qualification, and procurement of replacement parts becomes necessary.

In addition, NASA policy requires project managers to consider risk factors when preparing Program/Project Quality Assurance Surveillance Plans for critical and complex acquisitions. These plans document contractor operations that need Government oversight and the activities, metrics, control mechanisms, and organizations that will conduct quality assurance functions for the project. We found the Agency's current policy does not provide sufficient surveillance and audit planning guidance for project personnel to analyze and select contractor surveillance activities commensurate with the level of risk of nonconforming parts being incorporated into a product. The plans we reviewed incorporated and applied risk assessments inconsistently, and resource allocations for the associated projects may not have been commensurate with the projects' risk acceptance goals for parts quality. Inefficient surveillance activities could overburden resources or increase the risk of integrating a part of inappropriate quality into a project.


To increase transparency, accountability, and oversight of NASA's parts quality management processes, we made eight recommendations to the Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance, including that he expand current NASA data sharing to integrate supplier databases with parts databases, evaluate current parts and supplier database system architectures to determine the cost and benefits of establishing an Agency-wide database system, investigate causes of gaps in reporting and formulate remedial actions to ensure compliance with reporting requirements, and review a sample of Program/Project Quality Assurance Surveillance Plans to identify deficiencies and best practices. In response to a draft of this report, NASA management concurred with and described actions it plans to address our recommendations. We consider management's comments responsive and will close the recommendations upon completion and verification of the actions.

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