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Aluminum Scam Results in Two NASA Mission Failures

May 1, 2019, 4:38 PM UTC

An Oregon aluminum manufacturer has admitted to falsifying critical tests on aluminum sold to NASA over a 19 year period, agreeing to pay a $46 million fine to the Department of Justice.

NASA says the scam was at the heart of two failed missions—2009’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which carried equipment designed to take the most precise measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide to date, and 2011’s Glory, which was also meant to aid in climate research—where the Taurus XL rockets protective nose cones failed to separate on command. Both rockets plummeted back to earth.

“NASA relies on the integrity of our industry throughout the supply chain,” said Jim Norman, NASA’s director for Launch Services at NASA Headquarters in a statement. “While we do perform our own testing, NASA is not able to retest every single component. When testing results are altered and certifications are provided falsely, missions fail. … Our trust was severely violated.”

The company, which operated under the name Sapa Profiles, changed failing test results to make it appear materials had passed, says the Department of Justice. NASA was just one of the clients.

The testing lab supervisor pleaded guilty to altering test results in 2017 and is currently serving a three-year sentence.

The $46 million fine is little more than a slap on the wrist, though. NASA estimates the two mission failures cost it $700 million. Sapa (now known as Hyrdo Extrusion Portland) is no longer allowed to contract with the federal government, but that was unlikely to happen anyway, given the longevity of the fraud.