Aluminum is found in everything from smartphones to rockets, but one of those applications is somewhat more demanding. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (IOG) and the Department of Justice have announced the outcome of a years-long investigation of problems with aluminum rocket components. It turns out a company called Sapa Profiles, Inc. (SPI) has been selling compromised aluminum for almost 20 years with falsified testing certificates. This likely caused the loss of two NASA spacecraft.
According to investigators, inferior quality aluminum products from SPI are directly responsible for the loss of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) and Glory missions; both launched on Orbital ATK Taurus rockets (above). In 2009, the OCO failed to reach orbit when the payload fairing covering the satellite didn’t separate from the rocket. A replacement Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 launched successfully in 2014. The Glory atmospheric science mission in 2011 also failed because the fairing did not separate. That left the rocket too heavy to reach the correct orbit, and Glory crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
NASA Launch Services Program (LSP) began an investigation of the failures, which eventually led to the OIG and Department of Justice involvement. According to the newly released public report and settlement, SPI (now renamed Hydro Extrusion Portland, Inc.) spent years creating false testing records to push its poor quality aluminum components to manufacturers including government contractors.
According to the DOJ settlement, SPI began making handwritten alterations to failing test results in 1996. Starting in 2002, the company started creating fake digital records of tests. Technicians regularly increased the speed of testing machinery and cut samples in ways that did not meet specifications. This practice continued through 2015 when NASA suspended SPI from all government contracts. The lab director who masterminded the scheme pled guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay over $170,000 in restitution.
The company itself has agreed to settle with prosecutors, pleading guilty to one count of mail fraud. It will pay $46 million to the US government and several commercial customers. It continues to be barred from supplying materials to the government. While you can chalk this up as a win for NASA, it still falls far short of balancing the scales. NASA lost around $700 million on the failed Glory and OCO missions.