Last Tuesday, April 30, NASA announced the results of a
years-long investigation by its Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and its
Launch Services Program (LSP). Back in
2009 and 2011, two climate-change-observing satellites failed to reach orbit
and were lost at a total cost of $700 million.
In both cases, the payload fairing—the dome protecting the payload
during launch—failed to separate on command, throwing the flight dynamics out
of whack and ultimately crashing the satellites before they reached orbit. After a long investigation in which the U. S.
Department of Justice was involved, NASA’s OIG found that a supplier of
aluminum extrusions used to hold the fairing together had been faking materials-testing
results on the extrusions not once, not twice, but literally thousands of times
over a period of nineteen years.
At least, that is what the revised launch-failure report by
NASA says. Understandably, the company
involved disputes some of these findings.
At the time the extrusions were supplied, it was known as Sapa Profiles
Inc. (SPI), of Portland, Oregon, although it is now part of a multinational corporation
called Hydro. The report makes for
To allow the fairing to separate into its clamshell halves
at the right moment during the launch phase of a flight, explosive charges are
set off to sever the aluminum extrusions that hold the halves of the fairing
together. But the aluminum has to have
the right properties to break cleanly, it appears, and so NASA required
supplier SPI to do certain materials tests on their extrusions, probably things
like tensile strength and so on. Given
the right equipment, these are straightforward tests, and even low-level engineers
and engineering students such as I teach know that faking test results is one
of the worst, but at the same time one of the more common, engineering-ethics
According to the NASA report, such fakery became routine at
SPI, so much so that a lab supervisor got in the habit of training newcomers
how to fake test results. NASA found
handwritten documents showing how the faking was done. And this was no now-and-then thing. For whatever reason, the extrusions failed
tests a lot, and so lots of faking went on, not only for NASA’s extrusions but
for products bound for hundreds of other customers. But not all of them had the investigative resources
and motivation of $700-million launch failures to check out what was happening.
The investigation took years to complete, and once SPI was
confronted with its results, the company agreed to pay $46 million in
restitution to the U. S. government and other customers as a part of a
settlement of criminal and civil charges.
That’s a lot of money, but clearly a drop in the bucket compared to what
the firm’s malfeasance cost NASA and all the people who put years of work and
ingenuity into the launches of the satellites which were doomed by the faulty
Seldom does a clear-cut violation of engineering ethics
principles have such an equally clear-cut result that makes it into the public
eye. Fortunately, none of the flights
affected by the faulty extrusions were manned, but losing $700 million of
hardware is bad enough. What we don’t
know is how SPI’s other customers were adversely affected by the falsified
tests, but didn’t have the resources to trace the problem back to its true
source. It’s entirely possible that this
new information will inspire other SPI customers to look back into mysterious
failures of their products to see if faulty SPI extrusions may be at fault
there as well. At any rate, NASA has suspended
the firm from selling anything to the U. S. government and is thinking about
proposing a perpetual bar.
I can only speculate what went through the minds of the
engineers who were asked to falsify the test results. Clearly, a culture of falsification had to be
in place for the problem to go on as long as it did. And numerous psychology experiments have
shown that we are much more creatures of our environment than we think we
are. Stanford professor of psychology
Philip Zimbardo showed that in 1971 when he set up a mock prision with
college-student volunteers who were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or
guards. Within six days, the guards were
treating the prisoners so badly that Zimbardo prematurely terminated the experiment
for fear that someone could get injured or killed.
If ordinary law-abiding students can conform to an
environment they know is not real, but nevertheless demands that they act a
certain way that is contrary to their everyday behavior, it is no great
surprise that engineering students newly hired into a company where systematic
corrupt practices are in place find it all too easy to conform to the
expectations of their supervisor and fall in with the practice of test-result
fakery. As an educator, I don’t know
what we can do other than to repeat that faking test results is never, under any circumstances, a good thing to do. Adhering to this advice requires that the
listener believe in at least one moral absolute, and that itself can prove to
be a challenge these days.
So sometimes, telling stories is more effective than just
reciting rules. The SPI extrusion
episode will probably make it into the annals of engineering-ethics textbooks,
as it should. Maybe telling the story of
how fake test results led directly to the loss of satellites will make an
impression that will stick in the minds of students. At any rate, this debacle deserves to be more
widely known, as it serves as an object lesson for anyone who is responsible
for testing hardware, or software, for that matter.