NASA pins two science mission failures on falsified test results
A decade-old mystery has been resolved after a NASA investigation found that the loss of two science satellite missions was due to falsified test results on the part of a private subcontractor. In a report released Tuesday, the space agency confirmed that the Taurus XL launch failures of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) and Glory missions in 2009 and 2011, respectively, were caused by faulty components from the aluminum manufacturer, Sapa Profiles, Inc (SPI).
On February 24, 2009, NASA launched its OCO satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California atop an Orbital Science Taurus XL (now called the Minotaur-C) rocket. Due to a failure of the rocket's protective nose cone fairing to separate on command, the spacecraft failed to reach orbit.
A similar incident happened on March 4, 2011, when the Glory satellite designed to study the Earth's climate also launched using a Taurus XL rocket from Vandenberg. As in the previous launch, the satellite was lost when the fairing failed to separate.
NASA Launch Services Program (LSP) investigators initiated an inquiry into the cause of the launch failures, which eventually included the space agency's Office of the Inspector General and the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
They found that the fairings on the rockets did not separate due to a failure of the aluminum extrusions in a component known as the payload fairing rail frangible joint, which is an explosive separation device that helps the fairing open and fall away from the rocket in flight. This failure was the result of what NASA calls a 19-year scheme in which SPI, the maker of the extrusion, falsified thousands of certifications for hundreds of customers by altering test results. One of these customers was Orbital Science.
The resolution of the criminal and alleged civil claims against SPI involves the payment of US$46 million to the US government and private companies. In addition, NASA has since September 30, 2015 suspended SPI in both its previous and current form as Hydro Extrusion Portland, Inc. from NASA contracts and has recommended that the federal government institute a similar ban.
"NASA relies on the integrity of our industry throughout the supply chain," says Jim Norman, NASA's director for Launch Services. "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 US$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."