On June 28th, 2015, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a Dragon resupply ship not into space, but rather into the Atlantic Ocean.
It was a catastrophic failure that cost taxpayers $112 million. The payload that was meant to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) went up in a huge plume of smoke and flames. However, even though SpaceX did not complete their mission, they still received all but twenty percent of the full payment.
Standard NASA protocol is to release a report on every launch accident, but to this day - two years later - there is still no formal statement as to what went wrong on the SpaceX accident.
Per NASA, there won’t be one released anytime soon. The Agency recently announced that it will in fact not publicly release a report on their investigation into the disastrous explosion of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. They had originally committed to reporting their results by the summer of 2017, but have instead passed the buck to the FAA.
“Since it was an FAA licensed flight, NASA is not required to complete a formal final report or public summary, and has deferred any additional products related to the matter at this time,” the agency’s Public Affairs Office (PAO) stated.
“The data is important for historical purposes, but the mishap involved a version of the Falcon 9 rocket, the version 1.1, that is now no longer in use.”
Apparently, the fact that SpaceX is no longer using that version of the Falcon 9 after this $112 million “mishap” of taxpayer funds means the American taxpayers have no right to know what happened. Strangely, that storyline did not work for a competing firm’s similar failure that occurred eight months prior.
On Oct. 28th, 2014, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket was loaded with NASA Supplies aboard a Cygnus cargo ship worth $51 million bound for the ISS. Upon lift-off, the booster exploded, and the payload was lost, severely damaging the launch pad. Just like the SpaceX flight, the Orbital rocket was an official FAA-Licensed commercial launch. Both the Antares and the Falcon 9 launches were conducted under the same NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program. And just like the Falcon 9, the Antares was part of an expiring line of rockets. Yet, NASA completed and published an executive summary within one year of the Antares incident.
The smell of hypocrisy has never been so potent.
After the report on the Antares accident was released, the explosion was traced to a failure of a turbo pump on an aging AJ26 first stage engine that was originally built for the Soviet Union’s lunar program more than 40 years earlier. Two months after the accident, Orbital announced it would replace the AJ26 engines with newly manufactured RD-181 engines which would require substantial modifications to Antares. The company learned from its mistake, as it should have been expected to do.
The same cannot be said for SpaceX. The only report NASA has made public regarding the Falcon 9 accident was an audit conducted by the agency’s Office of Inspector General. This report focused only on the loss of Dragon on NASA’s resupply program. The audit spent less than one page discussing the cause of the accident without presenting any conclusions.
This glaring hypocrisy between the handling of the Orbital and the SpaceX cases has not gone unnoticed. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology wrote a letter just after the SpaceX accident to NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, expressing his belief that this “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.”
The lack of a full investigation into the SpaceX Falcon 9 accident begs the question: Why is SpaceX given such preferential treatment? It appears that NASA is playing favorites with SpaceX. Considering the high risk and astronomical cost of the space program, shouldn’t all those involved be held to the highest standards?
Instead of getting to the bottom of the problems leading up to the SpaceX explosion, NASA responded by giving SpaceX a new long-term contract. The contract included discounted prices for future cargo missions and other “significant considerations,” but it still gives the impression that NASA has chosen to reward failure. The whole process raises questions about how NASA handles launch failure investigations, manages risk for cargo flights, and assigns cargo for those missions — not to mention their standards of accountability to the taxpayers that are funding the space program.
While there is no doubt that SpaceX has implemented some innovative, cost-cutting solutions for NASA, it should not be held to a different set of standards. Over the years, there have been various amendments proposed to completely ban the use of the company’s competition. For instance, in the FY 2018 NDAA, the House Armed Service Committee has proposed limiting funding for Russian rocket engines, as well as funding for new launch vehicles and launch vehicle systems. Competitors like the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are working on new, competitive evolved expendable launch vehicles (EELVs) that use American-made rockets, but the NDAA in its current form would kill their progress and give SpaceX a monopoly.