Tag Archives: Taurus

DOJ settles with company that faked tests which caused two Taurus launch failures

The Justice Department has reached a settlement with the company that had faked test results which caused faulty components to be installed on Orbital ATK’s Taurus rocket, eventually causing two consecutive launch failures.

SPI agreed to plead guilty to one count of mail fraud while SEI entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. SPI will pay $34.1 million in combined restitution to NASA, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and commercial customers, and forfeit $1.8 million in “ill-gotten gains.” The company will also pay an additional $6 million to NASA and $5 million to MDA as part of a separate civil settlement.

The companies acknowledged that SPI altered test results for nearly two decades, starting in the mid-1990s, such that aluminum extrusions that had failed mechanical properties testing instead appeared to have passed. Dennis Balius, a testing lab supervisor at SPI who led the effort to falsify test results for a number of years, pled guilty on separate charges in 2017 and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Those aluminum components were sold to a number of companies, including those who had contracts with NASA and MDA. The Justice Department statement noted that the components were used in frangible joints in launch vehicles and missiles. Such joints are used in vehicle separation systems.

“NASA maintains that SPI’s manufacturing processes lacked sufficient controls and produced extrusions unable to pass mechanical properties testing,” the Justice Department stated. “NASA further maintains that it identified SPI’s out-of-specification extrusions as the cause of two failed rocket launches, which resulted in the loss of important scientific missions.” SPI disputed those claims, although NASA has barred the company from contracting.

The worst part of this story is that it likely ended up destroying Orbital ATK, an innocent party to this fraud. Though the company lives on now as a division within Northrop Grumman, it never quite recovered from the two Taurus launch failures in 2009 and 2011. Customers went elsewhere, and the company’s launch business dried up. The only customer Orbital ATK was able to muster afterward was NASA, and the number of launches this provided was not enough, causing company’s eventual absorption by Northrop Grumman.

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Minotaur-C successfully launches 10 commercial smallsats

Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK’s Minotaur-C rocket today successfully launched 10 commercial smallsats.

It appears that they have upgraded the accused Taurus rocket in renaming it Minotaur-C.

After Orbital ATK suffered a series of launch failures with the Taurus rockets — which led to the loss of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory as well as its Glory climate-monitoring satellite — the company redesigned the Taurus. The new and improved rocket uses newer and more reliable technologies that Orbital ATK had built for its other Minotaur rockets.

This success is a very good thing for Orbital ATK, as the rocket likely gives them a strong position in the emerging smallsat market.

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Orbital ATK to launch first Minotaur-C in six and a half years

Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK will try today to successfully launch its renamed Taurus rocket, six and a half years after its previous two launches had ended in failure.

The rocket is now called Minotaur-C and will attempt to launch ten Planet Lab smallsats. As Taurus, the rocket failed 3 times out of 9 launches, and from what I could tell watching the launch industry, was basically a dead product. I am now astonished that it is coming back to life. Apparently, Planet Lab got a good launch price, and can take the risk since its smallsats represent a relatively small investment and can be replaced much more easily than the two research satellites (Orbiting Carbon Laboratory and Glory) that NASA lost in the rocket’s previous two launches more than half a decade ago.

The article outlines nicely the history of this rocket, and how its failures significantly set back the growth of Orbital ATK. Hopefully, it will succeed now, and provide the U.S. another player in the increasingly competitive global launch market.

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