NASA Falls Victim to a 19-Year Fraud Scheme

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Hallie Ayres
Contributing Writer

In 2009, NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission failed after the satellite couldn’t reach its intended orbit because the structure that encapsulates the satellite during launch refused to separate from the vessel upon command. The same malfunction occurred in 2011, when NASA’s Glory mission satellite was destroyed in the atmosphere after its shell did not open fully. After years of technical and mechanical investigations, NASA Launch Services Program announced on April 30 that they had located the root cause of the mission failures: faulty metals sold to NASA by Sapa Profiles Inc., an aluminum manufacturing company based in Oregon.

As a result of government inquiry into the company, Sapa Profiles revealed that their falsified certifications and altered metals provided to NASA had been a part of a 19-year fraud scheme that involved hundreds of customers, spanning from 1996 to 2015. Admitting that company employees had been encouraged to lie about metal strength and reliability in tests, Sapa Profiles pled guilty to their fraud charges and is now forbidden from any contract work with the U.S. government. Norsk Hydro ASA, Sapa Profiles’ parent company, has agreed to pay $46 million to settle cases with NASA, the Department of Defense, and numerous other customers.

In a statement issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, Brian Benczkowski, an assistant attorney general of the criminal division, wrote that “corporate and personal greed perpetuated this fraud against the government and other private customers,” noting that barring Sapa Profiles from working with the government serves as a “resolution [to hold] these companies accountable for the harm caused by their scheme.” Jim Norman, a director for launch services at NASA, echoed Benczkowski’s sentiments as he lamented the years of scientific research rendered useless because of the fraud. “When testing results are altered and certifications are provided falsely, missions fail,” he said, continuing, “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.”

While NASA continues to make up for the lost time caused by the fraud, Norsk Hydro has reaffirmed the company’s alleged commitment to quality, ensuring customers that they have devoted “significant time and resources to completely overhaul our quality and compliance organizations.”