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Nasa launches failed due to faulty aluminium from supplier, investigation reveals

Image credit: nasa

Nasa has discovered that one of its aluminium suppliers was delivering faulty material for 19 years, which resulted in the failure of two space missions.

Manufacturer Sapa Profiles (SPI) was found to have been falsifying thousands of certifications for aluminium extrusions to hundreds of customers.

Sapa fabricated the results of its tensile tests, designed to ensure the consistency and reliability of the aluminium it extruded.

The lower-quality aluminium was found to be the “technical root cause” for the failures of Nasa’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) and Glory missions (pictured above) in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

“Nasa relies on the integrity of our industry throughout the supply chain,” said 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 $700m 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.”

Sapa has been ordered to pay $46m to Nasa, the Department of Defence and other customers for reparations.

The falsified reports were discovered after Nasa conducted a multi-year technical investigation to determine the cause of the launch failures.

The investigation concluded that the launch vehicle fairing, a clamshell structure that encapsulates the satellite as it travels through the atmosphere, failed to separate on command, a direct result of the lower quality metals used.

To protect the government supply chain, Nasa has suspended SPI from government contracting and proposed SPI for government-wide debarment.

The exclusion from government contracting has been in effect since 30 September 2015.

“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.

“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.”

Earlier this week, the International Space Station suffered a major power shortage leading to the delay of a delayed SpaceX supply run.

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