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NASA was sold bad aluminum in 19-year scam that caused $700M in failures

The space agency linked it to mission failures in 2009 and 2011.

NASA found that the 2011 Glory mission failed due to faulty aluminum.

NASA on Tuesday revealed that two failed missions were caused by a 19-year aluminum scam.

The space agency previously said the 2009 Orbiting Carbon Observatory and 2011 Glory missions malfunctioned when the protective nose cones on the Taurus XL rockets failed to separate on command.

However, a joint investigation involving NASA and the Justice Department revealed that the problem was caused by extrusion maker Sapa Profiles, which falsified critical tests over 19 years. Those extrusions played a critical role in the issue.

They found that the fairings on the rockets did not separate due to a failure of the aluminum extrusions in a component known as the payload fairing rail frangible joint, which is an explosive separation device that helps the fairing (which protects the payload) open and fall away from the rocket in flight.

Employees at the company's Portland, Oregon, facilities tweaked failing tests so materials appeared to pass from 1996 to 2015, according to the Justice Department.

"They then provided the false test results to hundreds of customers across the country, all to increase corporate profits and obtain production-based bonuses," wrote G. Zachary Terwilliger, US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.  

Sapa, which has since changed its name to Hydro Extrusion Portland, agreed to pay $46 million to the US government and other commercial customers -- which doesn't even come close to the $700 million NASA lost as a result of Taurus XL failures. The company is also excluded from contracting with the federal government.

"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," said Jim Norman, NASA's director for launch services, in a release.

First published on May 1 at 4:00 a.m. PT.
Updated on May 2 at 5:03 a.m. PT:  Tweaks detail about payload fairing rail frangible joint.

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