Faulty Materials Caused Two Launch Failures: NASA

"Due in large part to the hard work and dedication of many highly motivated people in the NASA Launch Services program, we are able to close out the cause of two extremely disappointing launch vehicle failures and protect the government aerospace supply chain," said Amanda Mitskevich, LSP program manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

NASA announced April 30 that its Launch Services Program investigators have determined the technical root cause for the Taurus XL launch failures of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory in 2009 and Glory mission in 2011: faulty materials provided by an aluminum manufacturer named Sapa Profiles, Inc. The investigation brought about the involvement of NASA's Office of the Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Justice in the case.

In connection with it, DOJ announced April 23 that an Oregon aluminum extrusion manufacturer has agreed to pay $46 million to NASA, the Department of Defense, and others to resolve criminal charges and civil claims relating to a 19-year fraud scheme that included falsifying thousands of certifications for aluminum extrusions provided to hundreds of customers.

According to court documents, Hydro Extrusion Portland, Inc., formerly known as Sapa Profiles Inc., and its corporate parent, Hydro Extrusion USA, LLC, formerly known as Sapa Extrusions Inc., admitted to providing customers, including U.S. government contractors, with falsified certifications after altering the results of tensile tests designed to ensure the consistency and reliability of aluminum extruded at the companies' Oregon-based facilities. Tensile testing involves slowly stretching and then ripping apart a sample of the metal using a machine, which then measures the force applied to the sample at each stage of the test.

The updated public summary of the launch failures by NASA followed a multiyear technical investigation by LSP and updates the previous public summaries on the Taurus XL launch failures for the OCO and Glory missions. Those public summaries concluded 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. From the NASA investigation, it is now known that SPI altered test results and provided false certifications to Orbital Sciences Corporation, the manufacturer of the Taurus XL, on the aluminum extrusions used in the payload fairing rail frangible joint.

"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 at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "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 agency said that, to protect the government supply chain, it suspended SPI from government contracting and proposed SPI for government-wide debarment. The exclusion from government contracting has been in effect since Sept. 30, 2015. NASA also has proposed debarment for Hydro Extrusion Portland, Inc., and the company currently is excluded from contracting throughout the federal government.

"Due in large part to the hard work and dedication of many highly motivated people in the NASA Launch Services program, we are able to close out the cause of two extremely disappointing launch vehicle failures and protect the government aerospace supply chain," said Amanda Mitskevich, LSP program manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. "It has taken a long time to get here, involving years of investigation and testing, but as of today, it has been worth every minute, and I am extremely pleased with the entire team's efforts."

"For nearly 20 years, Sapa Profiles and Sapa Extrusions falsified critical tests on the aluminum they sold — tests that their customers, including the U.S. government, depended on to ensure the reliability of the aluminum they purchased," said Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of DOJ's Criminal Division. "Corporate and personal greed perpetuated this fraud against the government and other private customers, and this resolution holds these companies accountable for the harm caused by their scheme."

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