NASA is one of the few things that both sides of the political spectrum can agree on. While liberals and conservatives argue about taxation, foreign policy, criminal justice, and almost everything else, NASA is above it all. President Donald Trump, who has proposed spending cuts to pretty much every single government agency besides law enforcement and the military, has spared NASA from any major haircut.
What NASA is not above, however, is government cronyism and picking winners and losers. While Americans might love that NASA has a space-defender position opening, what they don’t love is how NASA is shielding companies from their mistakes.
SpaceX, a company that usually gets much love among conservative and libertarian circles, cost the taxpayers $110 million when one of its rockets blew up in June 2015. The company still received 80 percent of its expected payment, and we still don’t know why the rocket failed on its mission to resupply the International Space Station.
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The funny thing about this is that NASA promised the public there would be a summary released of the investigation. Yet the agency announced just a few weeks ago that it doesn’t need to anymore because “NASA is not required to complete a formal final report or public summary since it was an FAA licensed Flight.” We might expect that kind of turnabout from Congress, the White House, and most of our agencies. We don’t expect it from the people who sent men to the moon.
It’s also funny because NASA didn’t do that when it came to another company. In October 2014, Orbital’s rocket blew up, costing the taxpayers $51 million. It was an FAA-licensed flight. It was conducted under the same NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program of which SpaceX is a part. Both involved aging rockets. Yet NASA still put out an executive summary for the Orbital incident within a year.
This clear double standard bothered Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and he ended up writing a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden explaining his belief that 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 back, denying that NASA was treating SpaceX any differently and that it wanted its Launch Services Program (LSP) to lead the review, writing it “would lead to an in-depth understanding of the events.” This letter came as SpaceX was conducting its own investigation, run by a SpaceX official. NASA didn’t have a full voting member on the investigation board.
As expected, SpaceX cleared itself of any wrongdoing, shuffling the blame squarely onto the supplier. Oddly, though, the one voting representative on its board didn’t sign the report sent to NASA and the FAA. The LSP didn’t think that SpaceX’s conclusions were right, and its own investigation found that there were credible causes for the explosion, including SpaceX’s possibly having some quality control issues. NASA’s inspector general recommended that NASA have a more streamlined and consistent investigation policy.
In all this uncertainty, Bolden decided to write a letter to SpaceX in February 2016 “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.” That letter, of course, was barely mentioned ever again by the inspector general, and it literally became a footnote of history. (It’s a footnote in the audit of NASA concerning the June 2015 explosion.)
SpaceX then cost the American taxpayers even more money when another one of its Falcon 9 rockets blew up in September 2016, taking with it a $205 million Facebook satellite and a $62 million government contract. Facebook was trying to spread internet access in Africa and, because of this, its efforts were set back a few hundred million dollars.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has decided that enough is enough and included language in the new appropriations bill to force NASA to keep its promise of releasing a summary. It directed the FAA to produce a summary document of the June 2015 incident within 30 days of the bill’s passage.
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NASA should be above picking winners and losers when it comes to an important mission in human progress. Instead, it’s wasting tens of millions of taxpayer dollars a year and reducing our trust in one of America’s most storied government agencies. The agency is setting back our chance to explore the stars by years as it fails to thoroughly investigate the root causes of failed missions.
Congress is a mess. But in this, it did its part by stepping in with its oversight. Now it’s time for NASA to figure out why SpaceX’s rockets keep blowing up, so we can continue future exploration into space. As Trump said, “We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.”
We can’t do that if we can’t trust the agency meant to propel us into a new technological age of space exploration.
Elias Atienza is associate editor of the Libertarian Republic
(photo credit, homepage and article images of Musk: Michelle Andonian, OnInnovation, Flickr)