- Thomson Reuters
Just days after SpaceX founder Elon Musk delivered his sweeping vision of colonizing Mars, a Colorado congressman is calling on government agencies to take over an investigation of the aerospace company’s recent launchpad rocket explosion.
The move – a signed congressional letter dated Thursday, September 29 – follows on the heels of two recent explosions of uncrewed Falcon 9 rockets.
“These failures could have spelled disaster, even loss of life, had critical national security payloads or NASA crew been aboard those rockets,” the letter states. “Both SpaceX failures occurred after the Air Force certified the Falcon 9 launch vehicle for U.S. national security launches, less than fifteen months ago.”
Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) penned the four-page congressional letter, which was cosigned by nine other House Republicans. (The letter’s full text is at the end of this post.)
It asks for increased scrutiny of SpaceX’s investigation practices, given its plans with NASA to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. It also lobs pointed questions at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), NASA, and the US Air Force (USAF) about the certification process of SpaceX hardware, pricing schemes, risk assessment, and more.
- Thomson Reuters
The first SpaceX incident in question was an in-flight explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on June 28, 2015, destroying a telecommunications satellite.
SpaceX chose to do an internal accident investigation with some FAA oversight, ultimately determining that a faulty strut had caused the accident.
The most recent accident was a launchpad fireball of a Falcon 9 rocket on September 1, 2016, in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The percussive blaze destroyed Facebook’s $200 million Amos-6 satellite, and SpaceX again exercised a federal law to perform its own investigation (since no people were harmed). That investigation isn’t done, though a helium system seems to be at fault.
For its ongoing investigation, SpaceX nearly doubled its team to a core group of “around 20 people,” of which “more than half are representatives from FAA, NASA, US Air Force and industry experts,” a company spokesperson previously told Business Insider in an email.
Leading the entire group is Hans Koenigsmann – SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance.
“[W]e believe he is the best person to do so,” the spokesperson said. “We are collaborating very closely with the participating agencies, sharing raw data and providing access to meetings.”
But the 10 signers of the congressional letter do not seem satisfied with the internally led process.
“We feel strongly that the current investigation should be led by NASA and the Air Force to ensure that proper investigative engineering rigor is applied and that the outcomes are sufficient to prevent NASA and military launch mishaps in the future,” the draft letter states.
John Taylor, a SpaceX spokesperson, declined to comment when provided a copy of the letter.
A space battle on Capitol Hill
- Associated Press
Raising issues about SpaceX, its failures, and its treatment by the US government is not a first for Coffman.
The congressman now faces a heated 2016 reelection campaign in his district – the home of SpaceX’s biggest competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is itself a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Records show that Coffman has publicly accepted more than $51,000 in campaign donations from Lockheed Martin during his career.
Coffman has also publicly supported ULA.
Samantha Masunaga, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, captured the scuffle well in a story published in May 2016:
“Traditional launch providers see their market being threatened by nontraditional entrants,” said Loren Thompson, aerospace analyst with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank. “Basically, this is competition between launch providers over market share and money that in the political process gets related to local interests.”
In 2015, United Launch Alliance spent $1.4 million on lobbying, up from $1 million the year before, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks federal campaign contributions and lobbying efforts on its website opensecrets.org.
That same year, SpaceX spent $1.7 million on lobbying, up from $1.5 million in 2014.
A government rule limiting the use of Russian-made engines – which ULA has relied on for its rockets – in the launch of military spacecraft has not helped matters for the company. (SpaceX makes its own rocket engines.)
Business Insider contacted Rep. Coffman’s press secretary as well as ULA and Lockheed Martin for this story, but we did not immediately receive a response. A Boeing representative could not immediately provide a comment.
How federal agencies initially responded
The letter calls on the FAA, USAF, and NASA for their responses to the letter by October 31, 2016.
Business Insider forwarded both a draft and then a signed letter to those agencies as well as to the DoD (which is named in the letter) and asked for comment.
Hank Price, an FAA spokesperson, told Business Insider “it’d take some time to draft a response, and we wouldn’t respond to it until we’d spoken to the Congressman first.”
Another FAA spokesperson later told Business Insider in an email: “The FAA received the letter late Thursday afternoon and has not had a chance to review it. Safety of all operations, including commercial space, is our top priority, and the FAA is closely overseeing the accident investigation. We will respond to the members of Congress in a timely manner.”
NASA representatives for the agency’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate told Business Insider in an email “we haven’t officially received this, but even when we do, we wouldn’t be able to comment in advance of responding.”
Laura Seal, a DoD spokesperson, told Business Insider by email that the “letter is not addressed to the Department of Defense. If we do receive a letter from Congress on this topic for response, we would respond directly to the author.”
Representatives at the USAF did not immediately reply.
The congressional letter
Below is the full text of the signed letter.
Correction: In one instance of a previous version of this story, Rep. Mike Coffman was misidentified in as a Senator.