March 7, 2009 — -- Maybe it was something he didn't mean to say. Or maybe NASA has a problem.
At a House subcommittee hearing on NASA's cost overruns, the agency's acting administrator, Christopher Scolese, was asked why it is that so many space projects fail to stick to their budgets.
He listed a variety of reasons, including management mistakes, bad planning or the sheer complexity of missions that have never been tried before.
And then he said, as one extra point, that some spacecraft are built with parts that turn out to be "counterfeit."
Counterfeit? Ears in the room perked up.
"In dealing with that, you find out late, typically, when you get counterfeit parts," said Scolese.
Sometimes, he said, "you find out about it when you're in tests, or you find out about it when you're sitting on top of the rocket, or worse, you find about it when you're in space. And all of those have cost implications."
So NASA was faced with a sudden brush fire. Were satellites being launched with parts that might doom them to failure? Were astronauts in danger?
NASA insists the answer is no. But there have been cases in which it says companies have supplied it with parts or materials that were not what had been originally promised.
The most recent case involves NASA's Kepler probe, which was a day from scheduled liftoff when the hearing was taking place Thursday morning. Engineers built Kepler to spend at least three years in solar orbit, with a powerful camera to look for evidence of Earth-like planets circling other stars.
Last fall, a supplier was indicted for selling falsely approved titanium to NASA and the U.S. Air Force -- including the metal for Kepler's camera mount. That did not necessarily mean the titanium was in danger of failing, but the company had allegedly falsified its records to say it had done all the necessary tests.
"We analyzed the mount for about three weeks," said J.D. Harrington, a spokesman for NASA, "and we found the titanium to be well within performance requirements."
Perhaps so, but the just-in-case inspections cost time and money -- taxpayers' money.
NASA said it could not put a dollar figure on the problem. In response to reporters' questions, it said it was trying.
A House staff member, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said "counterfeit" does not necessarily mean the same thing to engineers that it does to the rest of us.
When someone talks about a counterfeit coin, that means it's fake. A counterfeit spacecraft component, on the other hand, may be quite usable, but the manufacturer may not have done the time-consuming, costly testing and paperwork to prove it is good.
"Mr. Scolese testified that counterfeit parts are one of several problems the agency faces when budgeting and scheduling space missions," said Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, whose question prompted Scolese's answer. "Each and every hindrance to completing missions successfully, on time and on budget need to analyzed and mitigated."
Is this a widespread problem? Scolese said no, but it is a growing one. As large aerospace companies have merged over the years, there is less competition for NASA's business, and there are more suppliers overseas.
"There have been instances in the past, going back to the Apollo project," said Roger Launius, a well-known space historian now at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. He said the cases have been isolated, but in a business as complicated and expensive as space flight, they can be serious.
"If there are fraudulent parts being foisted on NASA, that can be something that ought to be prosecuted," he said. "It's not 'no harm, no foul.'"