The destruction of two NASA rockets has finally been explained — as investigations reveal they had been built with faulty aluminium provided by a fraudulent supplier.
Sapa Profiles Inc, a manufacturer based in Oregon, committed the crime over a period of more than 20 years.
The parent company, Norsk Hydro, has been ordered to pay £35 million ($46 million) in damages and lab supervisor Dennis Balius has been sentenced to three years in prison.
A combined total exceeding several billions of dollars was lost from 450 customers as a result of the firm passing off unsafe, poor quality metal as suitable for construction purposes.
Some of the defective materials ended up in two NASA rockets that had been launched to carry climate-analysing satellites into orbit.
When protective shields failed to detach from the rockets, they were left too heavy to reach orbit and ultimately broke up as they fell back down to earth.
NASA unwittingly used faulty aluminium in the construction of a Taurus XL rocket (pictured during lift-off) that had been loaded with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory in 2009. When a protective shield failed, the rocket fell back through the atmosphere and burnt up
Investigators found that supplier had made alterations to over 2,000 quality test results in the period from 1996 to 2006.
Sapa Profiles Inc (now Hydro Extrusion Portland, Inc) subsequently revealed that around a further 4,100 results had been falsified between 2002 and 2015.
The tests were supposed to assure the strength and reliability of the metal when placed under pressure.
According to court reports, Sapa employees who attempted to raise concerns about these fraudulent practices were ignored.
One technician told his supervisor that he dreaded the daily requests to fake tests, which was achieved either by passing material that had actually failed quality assurances or by entering fake data into reports.
450 of Sapa’s clients were impacted by the faked quality testing, which resulted in combined losses in the billions of dollars.
WHAT CAUSED TWO OF NASA’S TAURUS XL ROCKETS TO FAIL?
Taurus XL are four-stage, solid-fuel powered rockets capable of transporting 1.35 tonne (1,350 kg) payloads into low Earth orbit.
Rockets loaded with the climate-monitoring Orbiting Carbon Observatory and Glory satellites both failed, in 2009 and 2011 respectively.
Failure occurred when the rocket’s fairings failed to open and detach.
A fairing is a clamshell-like shield which protects the payload during lift-off and early flight.
The added weight of the shields meant that the third stages of the rockets did not have enough fuel to reach orbit.
As a result, the rockets fell back down through the atmosphere, where they burnt up due to friction with the air.
Debris from both rockets ended up splashing down to the ocean, NASA reported.
Among these customers were NASA, who unwittingly used faulty aluminium in the construction of two Taurus XL rockets that had been loaded with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and Glory satellites in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
Both satellites had been designed to gather data on the Earth’s climate from orbit, but both were destroyed when the rockets failed and burnt up as they fell back down through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Both setbacks ruined years of scientific and engineering work.
The remains of the carbon observatory crashed into the southern Indian Ocean, near Antarctica, while the £326 million ($424 million) Glory satellite’s debris splashed down into the Pacific Ocean.
Both rockets failed when their payload fairings — the clamshell-shaped structures that protect their satellite cargo from atmospheric friction during launch and the early stages of flight — failed to detach.
With the added weight of the fairings, the rockets’ third stages no longer had enough fuel in order to reach orbit.
Both rockets failed when their payload fairings — the clamshell-shaped structures that protect their satellite cargo from atmospheric friction — failed to detach during flight (Pictured: a Taurus XL carries the Orbiting Carbon Observatory into the atmosphere)
Two accident investigation boards were launched after their respective incidents, but were unable at that time to establish the root cause of the failures.
However, separate inquiries begun in 2012 by NASA’s Launch Service Programme, the NASA Office of the Inspector general and the US Department of Justice ultimately uncovered the thousands of falsified aluminium quality reports.
Sapa had provided fake quality certificates to the Orbital Sciences Corporation, who manufactured the two Taurus XL rockets on NASA’s behalf.
‘When testing results are altered and certifications are provided falsely, missions fail,’ Jim Norman, NASA’s Director for Launch Services, told The Times.
‘Our trust was severely violated.’
As a result of the investigations, Sapa Profiles Inc faced civil allegations and criminal charges, while the firm’s test lab manager, Dennis Balius, pleaded guilty to both directly falsifying test results as well as training and instructing employees to do the same.
Mr Balius is now serving a three-year prison sentence.
The aluminium supplier’s parent company, Norsk Hydro, was forced to pay around £35 million ($46 million) in reparations to both the US Government and other customers.
‘Corporate and personal greed perpetuated this fraud against the government and other private customers,’ said Brian Benczkowski, who is the assistant attorney-general of the Department of Justice’s criminal division.
‘This resolution holds these companies accountable for the harm caused by their scheme,’ he added.
‘Since learning of the misconduct and reporting it to the government and customers, we have invested significant time and resources to completely overhaul our quality and compliance organisations,’ said a spokesperson for Norsk Hydro.
‘We are committed to serving the needs of our customers and conducting business with the highest level of ethics and integrity.’