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NASA uncovers a 19-year fraud that caused failed missions

An investigation finds the cause of failed NASA launches and $700 million in losses.

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory on the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Image credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin
  • An Oregon company provided falsified tests to a NASA rocket builder for almost two decades.
  • The company is now liable for $46 million in payments and the lab manager went to prison.
  • NASA can't test every single component itself, making it important the supply chain is protected.

An Oregon aluminum manufacturer has been defrauding NASA for almost twenty years, resulting in failed missions, announced the Department of Justice.

Sapa Profiles Inc. (SPI), now known as Hydro Extrusion Portland Inc., carried out a 19-year scam that included falsifying thousands of critical test documents, leading to the failed 2009 and 2011 launches of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory and Glory missions.

NASA Launch Services Program's multi-year investigation revealed that the malfunctions were caused by faulty aluminum. The launch vehicle "fairings" – specialized clamshell structures covering the mission satellites aboard the Taurus XL rocket – failed to separate due to the deficiency of the metal, provided by SPI.

The company's employees routinely changed inconvenient numbers and violated test standards and specifications, doctoring the speeds of machines used in the testing and utilizing incorrect sample sizes. The wrong information about aluminum extrusions was then employed in the payload fairing rail "frangible joints" by Orbital Sciences Corporation, the rocket's manufacturer.

An artist's concept of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which was supposed to study atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Image credit: NASA/JPL

The company went as far as using other clients, some being contracted by the government, to provide misleading certifications.

SPI (Hydro Extrusion Portland) is now liable for $46 million in payments, a small price to pay if you consider the $700 million cost of the failed missions attributed to these aluminum defects. Jim Norman, director for Launch Services at NASA Headquarters in Washington, weighed in on the seriousness of the fraud, saying that NASA just can't possibly test every single component and if suppliers are dishonest, missions could fail.

"In our case, the Taurus XLs that failed for the OCO and Glory missions resulted in the loss of more than $700 million, and years of people's scientific work, " explained Norman. "It is critical that we are able to trust our industry to produce, test and certify materials in accordance with the standards we require. In this case, our trust was severely violated."

U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger for the Eastern District of Virginia, commenting for the DOJ, did not mince words either:

"For nearly two decades, SPI and its employees covered up substandard manufacturing processes by brazenly falsifying test results," said Terwilliger. "They then provided the false test results to hundreds of customers across the country, all to increase corporate profits and obtain production-based bonuses."

All criminal charges and civil claims against Sapa Profiles Inc. are being resolved with this arrangement. The testing lab supervisor, Dennis Balius, got three years of jail time for his role. The company has been suspended from doing business with the U.S. government since 2015.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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