By Andrew Langer • The Hill
In the Trump era, one of the few things that both sides of the aisle can agree on is distaste for cronyism, especially when it is the government picking winners and losers. Ironically, one of the biggest offenders is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a bipartisan agency that is generally loved by Americans. One big beneficiary of the agency is Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX.
In June 2015, SpaceX cost taxpayers $110 million when one of its Falcon 9 rockets exploded on a mission to resupply the International Space Station. The company received all but 20 percent of the payment it would have received for completing the mission successfully. Though two years have since passed, the cause of the rocket’s failure remains unclear.
NASA assured the public that the agency would release a public summary of the results from its investigation by this summer. But just weeks ago, NASA announced that it will no longer to do so. “NASA is not required to complete a formal final report or public summary since it was an FAA licensed flight,” a spokesman claimed.
Yet for some reason, the agency has been known to treat other companies differently.
In October 2014, Orbital’s “Antares” rocket experienced a failure that led to the destruction of $51 million in NASA supplies. That launch was also an FAA-licensed commercial launch. It was even conducted under the same NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program as the SpaceX flight. And, as with SpaceX, it involved the failure of an expiring version of the rocket line in question. NASA still put out an executive summary within one year of the incident.
Just over two years ago, the inequity between the Orbital and SpaceX cases started to irk Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He wrote a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden detailing how he believed the “discrepancy … raises questions about not only the equity and fairness of NASA’s process for initiating independent accident investigations, but also the fidelity of the investigations themselves.”
Bolden wrote that NASA wanted its Launch Services Program (LSP) lead the review into the accident, which “would lead to an in-depth understanding of the events.” This was occurring in addition to a SpaceX-led investigation, run by a SpaceX official and a single FAA member who could not vote. NASA did not have a full voting member on the company’s investigation board.
In the end, SpaceX’s data and findings did not match the conclusions reached by the LSP. The LSP was not convinced that SpaceX was correct in finding the supplier should hold exclusive blame. It found that there could be several potential, credible causes for the explosion, including quality control issues at SpaceX.
Thus, NASA’s inspector general recommended that NASA review its authorities to create a more coherent, synchronized approach to the investigation.
The uncertainty surrounding the situation even caused Bolden to write a February 2016 letter to SpaceX “expressing concerns about the company’s systems engineering and management practices, hardware installation and repair methods, and telemetry systems based on LSP’s review of the failure.” But that letter was largely swept under the rug by the OIG. Its sole mention in the audit was one footnote.
The Falcon 9 went up in smoke again just months later. One of the rockets blew up again in September 2016, destroying a $205 million Facebook satellite and the entirety of a $62 million government contract.
Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation. Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 1, 2016
Thankfully, the Senate Appropriations Committee is working hard to prevent the agency from getting away with breaking such an important promise. Since the committee members understand how much is at stake for repeated failures, they included report language to their appropriations bill directing the FAA to produce a summary document on the June 2015 incident within 30 days of the bill’s passage.
NASA’s glaring hypocrisy and discrimination amongst different corporations is not only leading to the wasting of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars a year, it’s also weakening our aeronautical progress by delaying subsequent missions years into the future. Congress did its part. Now it’s time for the bureaucrats in NASA to do what’s ethically responsible by figuring out what’s going on at SpaceX.
Andrew Langer is president of the Institute for Liberty, a conservative public policy advocacy organization.