When the launch of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory and Glory missions failed in 2009 and 2011, the agency said it was because their launch vehicle malfunctioned. The clamshell structure (called fairing) encapsulating the satellites as they traveled aboard Orbital ATK's Taurus XL rocket failed to separate on command. Now, a NASA Launch Services Program (LSP) investigation has revealed that the malfunction was caused by faulty aluminum materials. More importantly, the probe blew a 19-year fraud scheme perpetrated by Oregon aluminum extrusion manufacturer Sapa Profiles, Inc., which Orbital ATK fell victim to, wide open.
LSP, along with NASA's Office of the Inspector General and the US Department of Justice, have discovered the Sapa Profiles falsified critical tests on the aluminum it sold. For almost two decades, employees would doctor failing numbers or violate other testing standards, such as increasing the speed of testing machines or using sample sizes that didn't meet specifications. They'd then provide clients, including government contractors, with falsified certifications. SPI itself was motivated by profits and the need to conceal the inconsistent quality of its aluminum products, while its employees were motivated by production-based bonuses.
Jim Norman, NASA's director for Launch Services at NASA Headquarters in Washington, explains why suppliers' integrity is incredibly important for the agency's missions:
"NASA relies on the integrity of our industry throughout the supply chain. While we do perform our own testing, NASA is not able to retest every single component. That is why we require and pay for certain components to be tested and certified by the supplier. When testing results are altered and certifications are provided falsely, missions fail. In our case, the Taurus XLs that failed for the OCO and Glory missions resulted in the loss of more than $700 million, and years of people's scientific work. It is critical that we are able to trust our industry to produce, test and certify materials in accordance with the standards we require. In this case, our trust was severely violated."
The company, now known as Hydro Extrusion Portland, Inc., has agreed to pay NASA, the DOJ and other entities $46 million. It's a tiny fraction of the $700 million NASA lost from the failed missions, but at least officials were able to hold SPI accountable for its actions. Sapa Profiles/Hydro Extrusion was also suspended from government contracting on September 30th, 2015, and it can no longer do business with the federal government.