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Metal fraud cost NASA two satellites worth $700 million

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- 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. The upper stack consists of Stages 1, 2 and 3 of the Taurus as well as the encapsulated Glory spacecraft. Workers put the non-flight environmental shield over the fairing prior to assembly. A portion of the umbilical tower is attached to the upper stack which falls away from the spacecraft during liftoff. The Orbital Sciences Taurus XL rocket will launch Glory into low Earth orbit. Once Glory reaches orbit, it will collect data on the properties of aerosols and black carbon. It also will help scientists understand how the sun's irradiance affects Earth's climate.
NASA/Randy Beaudoin
The soon-to-be-lost Taurus rocket prepares for launch in 2011.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The destruction of two Taurus rockets and the NASA satellites they carried is an especially frustrating failure in the annals of space exploration.

During each launch, one in 2009 and the other in 2011, the 29 meter (92 ft.) tall rockets lifted off and soared majestically toward the heavens. At the critical moment to jettison their protective nosecones, called farings, the rockets simply did not. With the extra weight still in place, the rockets did not make it to orbit. Instead, each crashed into the Pacific ocean near Antarctica.

NASA released its most detailed account of the failures (pdf) on April 30, blaming bad parts purchased from a supplier whose workers falsified data about the parts’ suitability for use in space vehicles. The result, according to the space agency, was the loss of the two rockets and the satellites they carried, at a cost of more than $700 million.

The two NASA satellites, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and a similar earth-observing satellite called Glory, would have collected vital data about the earth’s climate.

NASA’s engineers  determined that an aluminum joint, designed to be split in two by a small explosive, instead survived and kept the nosecones in place. After testing samples of similar joints, they found a culprit: Sapa Profiles, Inc., or SPI, the company that made the joints for Orbital Sciences, the contractor that built the rockets.

The parts made by SPI, called frangible joints, were likely too thick to be broken apart by the explosive charge, according to NASA, despite the firm’s claims that the joints met Orbital’s specifications.

On further investigation, the investigators discovered SPI had been falsifying test data about its products, with supervisors changing test results by hand or simply using measurements from acceptable samples to certify failed parts.

Criminal prosecutors were brought by NASA investigators, and SPI ultimately paid $46 million in restitution fees after pleading guilty to one count of mail fraud in a deal announced April 23. Previously, in 2017, SPI lab supervisor Dennis Balius was sentenced to three years in prison and paid a $170,000 fine in connection with the fraudulent certifications.

Despite admitting that it had misled its customers, SPI still disputes its role in the two launch failures, which may have led NASA to release its latest findings.

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