Aluminum Parts Fraud Caused $700 Million Losses to NASA in 2009 and 2011

The cause for the Taurus XL launch failures of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) and Glory missions in 2009 and 2011 were bad materials and parts provided by aluminum manufacturer, Sapa Profiles, Inc.

he Taurus XLs that failed for the OCO and Glory missions resulted in the loss of more than $700 million, and years of people’s scientific work.

Above – On Space Launch Complex 576-E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Orbital Sciences workers monitor NASA’s Glory upper stack as a crane lifts it from a stationary rail for attachment to the Taurus XL rocket’s Stage 0.
Credits: NASA

Employees had faked test results related to the metal’s strength and reliability under pressure.

Written By Brian Wang

17 thoughts on “Aluminum Parts Fraud Caused $700 Million Losses to NASA in 2009 and 2011”

  1. I am not a materials engineer (I’m a fluid dynamicist); however, is it possibly the case that in aluminum, lower tensile strength could lead to tendency towards deformation rather than fracture? The issue was the explosive bolt cutter didn’t separate the fairing because it failed it cut through the extrusion material. Is it the case that perhaps less tensile strength means it deformed instead of cut? Again, apologies if that’s a stupid question. I deal a tiny bit with ordnance systems but not with the materials analysis behind them.

  2. That’s counterfeit electronic parts. This was faulty aluminum that was too strong for the explosive bolt cutters on the payload fairing sep system to cut through. The aluminum essentially wasn’t fabricated correctly. And materials test reports meant to satisfy subcontractor requirements were faked.

  3. This didn’t even have anything to do with NASA. A materials sub gave fraudulent reports to NASA and Orbital ATK. Can you maybe read the damn article first?

  4. This is a lot more extensive and expensive activity than you make it sound like. If you’re subcontracting out materials, you didn’t have to write QA codes or any contractual materials to define the testing or a dozen different systems documents to characterize levels, you didnt’ have to have TIMs or SRRs on any of it, you didn’t have to go to sub CDRs, you didn’t have to any of that.

    Now you buy one more to destructively test. And you’re on the hook for millions in all this SEIT activity that you didn’t have to do.

    Take it from a systems engineer, it’s not as simple as just ordering an extra. There’s a reason primes sub out all of that activity.

  5. Yes, the only way to be sure you got good aluminum is to order one extra part and pick one at random and fully destructively test it. But I would still use the spectrometer to make sure they all test identical…in case the manufacturer is playing Russian roulette hoping the legitimate part will be chosen for the tests.

    If the parts are pricey, I would send a guy to the factory when they are making the stuff. Maybe even put a radioactive tracer in the mix so they can’t switch it at some point…if the part was not custom. No point if it is custom. They are not going to make it right and then melt it down to make it wrong. Unless someone is actually paying them to sabotage it…which is not terribly likely. Much more likely that someone will just cut corners to make a bit more money.

  6. That tells you the chemical composition.
    Of the top 100 micrometers of material.
    But not the heat treatment, the dislocation distribution, microstructure, the presence of flaws, badly done weld joints, dry patches in the carbon fiber, excessively wet patches in the carbon fiber etc, etc.

    And all those other things are actually the bits that are more difficult to get right, and hence more expensive.

    Yes, you’ll catch an amatuer fake with a surface chemical XRF, but something like short cuts in manufacturing or just not bothering to do all the critical quality checks will still get through.

  7. Nasa is a money pit what do you expect from thieves,it is much worse and deeper ,the bastards that buy this junk are in on the scams every time.

  8. The OIG report states that remnant material provided by the manufacturer, left over from machining similar fairing rails, was tested and some samples did not conform to the min mechanical properties (QQ-A-200/8 6061-T6 extrusion) listed in the purchase contract. The report stated the extrusion material met dimensional requirements, and there was no mention of the material not conforming to 6061 alloy composition requirements.

    The OIG report did not provide details of the non-conforming test specimens. How far below the min mechanical property limit were they? Which characteristic did they not meet (UTS, YTS or elongation)? The OIG report lists longitudinal (L) A-basis min mechanical properties for 6061-T6 extrusions per QQ-A-200/8 having a section thickness less than .250″. However, the A-basis lateral-transverse (LT) min mechanical property limits for the same material are a bit lower.

    One issue I found with the OIG report is that it appears to make conflicting claims. On one hand, it concludes one cause of the failure was fairing rails made from extrusion material having lower tensile strength and/or elongation characteristics than required. This would seem to make the fairing rail more prone to fracture at the frangible joint, rather than less. The report also notes that while the extrusion cross section dimensions were all within tolerance, they all tended to be close to the maximum thickness, and this would make the fairing rails less prone to fracture at the joint.

  9. Hard to keep employees from stealing expensive stuff like this. These things are like $16,000.

    Maybe you could modify the programing for a SCiO? They sell some sort of development package to modify the things. But the devise itself is very cheap by comparison.

  10. SpaceX making most of it’s parts isn’t looking like such a bad strategy now, ey?

  11. Happened here at Cherry Point. Landing gear crumpled upon landing, because a billet had been incorrectly marked.
    I wonder how many other aircraft are currently flying around with sub-standard components.

  12. Fraudulent parts is a well known issue in commercial aviation.
    On the other hand, commercial aviation usually has much fatter safety margins than space systems. So failure is less likely.

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