The T9 rocket failed to reach orbit and broke up on re-entry © NASA/Randy Beaudoin, VAFB
The T9 rocket failed to reach orbit and broke up on re-entry © NASA/Randy Beaudoin, VAFB

NASA rocket launches 'failed due to supplier fraud'

7 May 2019

The failure of two satellite missions was due to bad parts received from a supplier which had routinely falsified data, said a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) report.

In a report investigating the Taurus T8 and T9 rocket failures in 2009 and 2011, NASA claimed the missions failed because a single frangible joint supplied by SAPA Profiles Inc (SPI), had not completely separated as required.

The rockets had been carrying satellites to collect vital data on the earth’s climate but both missions failed to reach orbit, resulting in a break-up of the rockets when re-entering the earth’s atmosphere with pieces dispersed in the Pacific Ocean, near Antarctica.

The combined cost of both failed missions was in excess of $700m, NASA said.

NASA said an internal investigation had found the joints supplied by SPI to Orbital Sciences, the contractor that built the rockets, had not successfully split in either mission.

The aluminium joints are designed to be broken apart by a small explosive to split the nose cone and allow the rocket to shed weight to reach orbit.

NASA said having tested remnants from the T8 and T9 extrusions, the joints were likely to be too thick to be broken apart by the explosive charge, reducing “the ability of the frangible joint to fracture”.

However, investigators also found SPI had “altered extrusion material property test results from failing to passing, and had falsely provided material property certifications” stating the materials met specification requirements.

“The test article that did not fracture was from an extrusion supplied by SPI and certified by SPI as meeting the Orbital material property specification but independent testing proved the material properties did not meet the requirements,” NASA said.

Investigations found SPI had been routinely altering material properties test results, with supervisors and test lab technicians altering failing test results by hand.

Last month, SPI pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and agreed to pay $46m to NASA, the US Department of Defense and others, according to the US Department of Justice. The manufacturer still disputes its role in the two failed launches.

According to court documents, SPI admitted to “providing customers, including US government contractors, with falsified certifications after altering the results of tensile tests designed to ensure the consistency and reliability of aluminum extruded at the companies’ Oregon-based facilities”.

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