NASA investigation uncovers cause of launch failures

Stephen Kuper

NASA Launch Services Program (LSP) investigators have determined the technical root cause for the Taurus XL launch failures of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) and Glory missions in 2009 and 2011, respectively: faulty materials.

NASA’s updated public summary identified materials provided by aluminium manufacturer Sapa Profiles (SPI) as the cause of the failed missions. LSP’s technical investigation led to the involvement of NASA’s Office of Inspector General and the US Department of Justice (DOJ).

DOJ’s efforts, recently made public, resulted in the resolution of criminal charges and alleged civil claims against SPI, and its agreement to pay US$46 million to the US government and other commercial customers. This relates to a 19-year scheme that included falsifying thousands of certifications for aluminium extrusions to hundreds of customers. 

Those public summaries concluded that the launch vehicle fairing — a clamshell structure that encapsulates the satellite as it travels through the atmosphere — failed to separate on command, but no technical root cause had been identified.

From NASA’s investigation, it is now known that SPI altered test results and provided false certifications to Orbital Sciences Corporation, the manufacturer of the Taurus XL, regarding the aluminium extrusions used in the payload fairing rail frangible joint. A frangible joint is a structural separation system that is initiated using ordnance. 

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Jim Norman, NASA’s director for launch services at NASA Headquarters in Washington said, "NASA relies on the integrity of our industry throughout the supply chain. 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."

To protect the government supply chain, NASA 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.

NASA also has proposed debarment for Hydro Extrusion Portland, formerly known as SPI, and the company currently is excluded from contracting throughout the federal government.

"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 $700 million, 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," Norman added. 

Amanda Mitskevich, LSP program manager at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, explained, "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.

"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," Mitskevich added. 

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