A SpaceX contractor risked disaster by forging safety inspectors' signatures for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket parts, US prosecutors say

  • A quality assurance engineer who worked for a SpaceX contractor falsified 38 inspection reports for critical flight parts, according to the US Department of Justice.
  • James Smalley, who worked for PMI Industries, photocopied an inspector’s signature then copied it onto inspection documents, DOJ prosecutors said.
  • The parts that went through the falsified documentation had been meant for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy space launches, the DOJ said.
  • Smalley allegedly justified his actions by saying that he “wanted to ship more product” according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
  • SpaceX used parts from PMI in a total of ten space missions with NASA, the US Air Force, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.
  • It isn’t clear whether any PMI parts with faked signatures ended up going to space.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A SpaceX contractor forged signatures on inspection reports for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket parts, potentially endangering the missions, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) alleged on Wednesday.

Officials arrested James Smalley, a quality assurance engineer, on Wednesday, and charged him with falsifying at least 38 inspection reports for SpaceX vehicle parts, the DOJ said in a press release.

The parts were flight-critical, and had been due to be used in Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, the DOJ said.

A SpaceX source told Business Insider that its internal systems identified the problem with the safety documentation, which eventually led to the DOJ prosecution.

Smalley worked for PMI Industries, which is based in Rochester, New York, and specialises in machinery for flight critical aerospace parts. These were used to build vehicles for SpaceX and other Department of Defence aerospace contractors, the DOJ said.

According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper, Smalley told investigators that he forged the signatures of at least three investigators from SQA Services, a SpaceX quality assurance subcontractor, and illicitly used their quality stamps.

The aerospace industry uses audits to ensure the quality and safety standards of manufactured parts, in the hope of preventing faulty parts causing accidents during flight.

Smalley is believed to have photocopied the inspectors’ signatures, the DOJ said. He then copied and pasted the signatures and quality stamps onto the falsified reports with his company-issued laptop, according to the Democrat and Chronicle which, cited the criminal complaint against the engineer.

When one of his bosses asked Smalley why he allegedly falsified the reports, Smalley said it was because he “wanted to ship more product for the company,” the Democrat and Chronicle reported, citing the complaint.

SpaceX’s business with PMI was worth around $US200,000 a month, the DOJ said.

Smalley is due to appear before a judge at a courthouse in Rochester, part of the Western District of New York, at 1 p.m. on Thursday.

SpaceX had used parts purchased from PMI in seven NASA space flight missions, two US Air Force space flight missions, and one National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration space flight mission, the DOJ reported, citing a SpaceX records request.

It’s not clear whether any of those missions used parts with falsified reports. A SpaceX source told Business Insider, however, that all the missions cited by the DOJ were successful.

SpaceX ended its contract with PMI shortly after those flights, the DOJ said, and PMI shut down operations as a result.

SpaceX was first made aware of the problems after SQA found in a January 2018 internal audit multiple falsified source inspection reports and non-destructive testing certifications.

SpaceX had at the time planned to use those parts for its Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a NASA mission that launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in April 2018.

Read more:
This image, from TESS, could contain hundreds of nearby undiscovered planets – including a few like Earth

PMI Industries also shipped to SpaceX at least 76 individual piece parts that had either been rejected during source inspection or were never inspected by SQA, the DOJ reported.

It is not clear whether Smalley was involved in those shipments, or what SpaceX did with them.

‘Took the act of forgery to a new level’

The DOJ’s criminal case into Smalley is the result of a joint investigation by NASA, the US Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and the FBI.

US Attorney James Kennedy said in a statement: “The success of America’s reinvigorated space program depends not just on American ingenuity but on American integrity as well.”

“These charges make clear that those who commit fraud against NASA, the Air Force, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who are among the government agencies leading our space program, and those private companies, such as SpaceX, with whom the government partners and contracts in its effort, will be held accountable when they seek to cut corners,” he said.

FBI Buffalo Special Agent-in-Charge Gary Loeffert added: “According to the criminal complaint, James Smalley took the act of forgery to a new level.

“A potentially catastrophic level with the potential to not only cost millions of dollars, but also jeopardize years of irreplicable work.”

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