A New York employee of a now-defunct aerospace-machining supplier has been charged with falsifying at least three dozen quality-assurance reports for parts that went into SpaceX rockets, prosecutors said Wednesday.
James Smalley, 41, of Penn Yan, N.Y., forged signatures on source-inspection reports for parts that were used for the workhorse Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets while he worked at PMI Industries LLC, a Rochester firm that specialized in "high-tolerance machining for flight-critical aerospace parts," according to a complaint filed by the U.S. attorney's office in the Western District of New York.
If convicted, Smalley could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, prosecutors said.
Smalley could not be immediately reached for comment. He is set to make an initial appearance in court Thursday afternoon but is not expected to plea.
SpaceX, the Hawthorne rocket company owned by Elon Musk, said its audit process caught the problem and that the company "promptly" reported the concern, which led to the prosecution of Smalley, a quality-assurance engineer.
In January 2018, an internal audit directed by SpaceX and conducted by a subcontractor specializing in quality assurance, found signatures supposedly from one of the subcontractor's inspectors on "multiple" source-inspection reports and testing certifications from PMI Industries, according to the complaint.
Prosecutors said they believed the inspector's signature was photocopied and "cut and pasted" onto the reports with a computer. According to the complaint, Smalley told FBI agents that he forged inspector signatures about 15 to 30 times on the final reports.
The complaint said there were at least 31 cases in which Smalley sent falsified reports to SpaceX and shipped "uninspected or nonconforming parts" to the company. Smalley told a PMI executive looking into the matter that he falsified the reports because he "wanted to ship more product," according to the complaint.
The U.S. attorney's office said all of the parts had been identified, and SpaceX found that theywere to be used on seven NASA missions, two U.S. Air Force launches and one launch for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to the complaint. Some of those missions have already been completed successfully, including NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which launched in April 2018.
PMI manufactured multiple parts for SpaceX, including a fairing, or nose cone, that protects satellites on their way to orbit, according to the complaint.
SpaceX ended its business relationship with PMI, and the manufacturer shut down because of the lost business, which averaged about $200,000 a month, according to the complaint. About 35 employees lost their jobs.
Last year, SpaceX completed 21 launches, including missions for NASA, the Air Force and commercial customers. It also launched its Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time, carrying Musk's Tesla Roadster as its payload.
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