For nearly 20 years, NASA was duped into buying faulty rocket parts

1 May 2019

NASA’s Glory rocket being checked out prior to its failed launch in 2011. Image: NASA

A NASA investigation has found that one of its suppliers for rocket parts has been defrauding the space agency for almost 20 years.

Investigators as part of NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) have concluded a lengthy investigation into why its Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) and Glory missions failed in 2009 and 2011, respectively.

Shockingly, NASA has found that the root cause of the failed Orbital Taurus XL rocket launches was faulty rocket parts sold by a third party.

NASA found that an aluminium manufacturer, Sapa Profiles, had spent 19 years falsifying thousands of certifications for aluminium extrusions to hundreds of customers.

Previously published evidence showed that the launch vehicle fairing – a clamshell structure that encapsulates the satellite as it travels through the atmosphere – failed to separate on command, but no technical root cause had been identified.

However, from NASA’s investigation, the agency showed Sapa Profiles spent years falsifying documents that were sent to Orbital Sciences Corporation, the manufacturer of the Taurus XL rocket. The parts of the rocket affected were the aluminium extrusions used in the payload fairing rail frangible joint.

‘Our trust was severely violated’

“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,” said Jim Norman, NASA’s director for launch services, in a statement.

“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 $700m, and years of people’s scientific work.”

He continued: “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.”

Sapa Profiles has since changed its name to Hydro Extrusion Portland, and it has been banned from supplying NASA or any US government branch with any more rocket parts. The aluminium manufacturer has also agreed to pay NASA and other affected parties $46m, a little more than 6pc of what NASA lost financially as a result of the failed launches.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic