Rockets are among the most complex machines humanity has ever built, requiring strenuously tested parts with the highest tolerances. After all, you can’t cut corners with a machine that explodes from one end to propel itself into space. However, an engineering firm in New York seems to have cut a lot of corners when delivering parts to SpaceX. An employee of PMI Industries is accused of falsifying inspection reports for dozens of parts.
According to the Department of Justice, James Smalley allegedly forged signatures on at least 38 inspection documents. At least 76 individual components made it to SpaceX where they were used in the construction of Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy rockets. Some of those parts were never tested but others were rejected after failing tests. Smalley gave them the stamp of approval all the same.
The FBI in Buffalo says Smalley “took the act of forgery to a new level.” He reportedly forged the names of at least three other employees of PMI on official documents and used a company-issued laptop to paste other stamps and signatures on inspection reports to pass failed and untested parts. The scheme was uncovered when SpaceX ran an internal audit of inspection documents. PMI has since shut down.
It’s unknown if the PMI parts caused any specific issues at SpaceX, but the DOJ says at least seven NASA launches and two US Air Force missions were affected by the parts from PMI. SpaceX isn’t flying any people yet, and it might not for a while after the loss of a Dragon capsule during testing. However, Smalley’s alleged actions put millions of dollars of equipment and irreplaceable scientific experiments at risk.
Spaceflight is complicated, and things can go wrong even when parts are properly tested. For example, the 2015 Falcon 9 explosion was eventually traced to a single strut that failed to hold down a helium pressure vessel. That component was supposed to handle 10,000 pounds of force and failed at just 2,000 pounds. Putting untested components in rockets is just asking for trouble.
The DOJ says Smalley could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted. He’s scheduled to appear in federal court today.