SpaceX has earned a reputation for building and launching rockets faster than its competitors, in part by bucking the prolonged development cycles and periodic operational shutdowns that are typical in the aerospace industry. So it was a bit of a surprise when SpaceX’s chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell announced a potential looming interruption in the breakneck pace of the company’s launches.
The reason: shortfalls of liquid oxygen caused by competing demands for it from hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. SpaceX mixes liquid oxygen with kerosene to power its Falcon rockets and mixes it with liquid methane for its next-generation Starship system, which is currently in development.
“We’re actually going to be impacted this year with the lack of liquid oxygen for launch,” Shotwell said in late August at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Oxygen transports for COVID patients also interfered with the scheduled liftoff of the Landsat 9 satellite, a joint project of NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. On September 27, after an 11-day delay, the satellite launched onboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Most of the delay was the result of ULA’s inability to obtain enough liquid nitrogen—which is converted to gaseous nitrogen for launch vehicle testing and countdown activities—because the supplier, Airgas, was delivering medical liquid oxygen to hospitals.
The oxygen shortfall is just the tip of a supply-chain iceberg that has disrupted launch services and satellite manufacturing, among many other industries. A computer chip shortage, triggered by pandemic-related manufacturing shutdowns in China, South Korea and Taiwan, continues to be the most pressing issue affecting not only the aerospace industry but also a wide range of products, such as automobiles and glass, for consumers, businesses and governments. At the Space Symposium, for instance, Shotwell also said that dwindling chip supplies had prompted SpaceX to delay the development of a new user terminal for its Starlink satellite broadband system.
SpaceX and ULA are not the only aerospace entities feeling the crunch. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Blackjack program, designed to demonstrate a new communications network for the military in low-Earth orbit, may not launch as planned in 2022 because of shortages of microchips and other electronic components, according to Blackjack’s program manager Stephen Forbes. “It’s taking a lot more effort than we ever expected to hunt down capacitors and other stuff like that,” Forbes said in an interview with Space News. “We’re ... trying to make sure that we can find the parts that we need, especially when we’re buying onesies and twosies.”
Meanwhile the inaugural flight of ULA’s much anticipated Vulcan Centaur rocket, which had been scheduled for this year, was delayed until 2022 so its customer, Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology, can work through electronics shortages that have stalled completion of its Peregrine lunar lander.
The COVID-19 pandemic “presented a lot of problems for the entire space supply chain,” says Astrobotic’s CEO John Thornton. “We’re just doing the best we can.” The company is developing a series of landers for commercial flights to the moon. The debut mission onboard Vulcan is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program and includes payloads from Mexico’s and Germany’s space agencies, as well as several commercial customers.
Early in the pandemic, ULA officials say, the company stocked up on as many components as possible to try to head off potential shortfalls that would directly impact its rocket manufacturing and launch business. The company has enough semiconductor chips to last several months and says it hopes deliveries will resume before supplies run out.
The supply chain issues impacting the space industry have been slow to emerge as the pandemic’s lengthy duration has gradually erased the temporal advantage that most launches had because of their years of preexisting, prepandemic preparations. Despite COVID, 114 orbital launches took place in 2020—104 of which did so successfully—tying 2018 for the highest number of orbital launches worldwide since 1990. The missions included two human spaceflights by SpaceX—the first from the U.S. since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.
Now, however, the effects of the pandemic are becoming more severe as stockpiles run low and raw materials (as well as workforces) remain scarce.
While it will not help the immediate supply problems, the Department of Defense is taking steps to mitigate future microchip shortages, whether caused by a pandemic or some other global calamity. On August 23 the agency awarded a contract to Intel to support the first phase of a project to restart the long-languishing capacity for commercial chip manufacturing in the U.S. Intel plans to work with IBM, Cadence Design Systems, Synopsys and other companies under the DOD’s Rapid Assured Microelectronics Prototypes–Commercial program. The award follows Intel’s announcement in March that the company intends to invest up to $20 billion to build two new computer chip factories in Arizona to serve U.S. and European markets.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis have shown [that] structural weaknesses in both domestic and international supply chains threaten America’s economic and national security,” wrote White House officials in an announcement about the release of a June 2021 report on supply chain issues and U.S. manufacturing.
Congress is currently considering legislation that would provide seed funds for other U.S. microelectronics manufacturing projects.
“As with everything we’re experiencing in life, things are harder in COVID than they were outside of COVID,” NASA’s Mars Exploration Program director Eric Ianson told the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, an independent scientific advisory committee, on September 27. “We are seeing things ... across all of our missions at NASA. Some are impacted more than others. Sometimes it’s things related to supply chain because there are assets being used for other things, not just our space missions,” he said. “Until the pandemic is fully under control, I think we’re going to continue to see impacts.”
“We are managing the impacts better today than we were when the pandemic began,” Ianson added. “I expect we’re going to continue to get better at doing that as we continue to ‘normalize’—for lack of a better term—working in this environment.”